Thousands of women are suffering from unreported ‘honour-based’ abuse

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Honour-based abuse (HBA) is an umbrella term attached to acts of violence, intimidation, coercion or sexual abuse committed to “protect or defend the honour of an individual, family or community,” according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Unfamiliar to most, the designation is also easily misunderstood – the heinous crimes described contrast sharply with the positive connotation of the word ‘honour’. The latest Home Office statistics show almost three thousand victims – predominantly young women – came forward over the past year, but experts believe the true scale of HBA to be far greater.

Although the practices ingrained in select south Asian, African and Middle Eastern cultures garner the most attention, such offences occur across a wide range of communities. In the most extreme cases, HBA can take the form of human rights violations, such as forced marriage or female genital mutilation (FGM).

“Out of love”

Khatra Paterson wasn’t accustomed to toys growing up, so the promise of a holiday abroad was a welcome surprise. She lived in the UK, but her parents were of Somali origin. Although their marriage had been arranged, her mother had been keen to join her UK-domiciled father in the hope of a better life.

He was physically abusive and controlling, routinely tying up Khatra and her six siblings to inflict further pain on their mother. Khatra was just under 10 years old when her parents split up. Not long thereafter, she was on a plane for the first time, bound for Djibouti with her uncle.

“A couple of days into my holiday I was asked to come into a room. A room full of women,” she told Some I didn’t know, some were relatives. They asked me whether I had underwear on which I thought was a bit odd. I said I had, and they asked me to sit down. 

“The moment when I sat down is when the other women came and I was forcibly placed on the floor and restrained, and that’s when it all happened – without any anaesthetic, without knowing what the hell was going on. I just thought I was going to die.”

Khatra had in fact been taken to Djibouti to undergo what UK law would later categorise as FGM. Her mother had arranged it. Relaying the ordeal four decades later, she said she believed it was “coming from a place of love.” 

“It’s tradition, it’s part of our culture,” she explained. “They see women who have a clitoris and labia as unclean and not marriage-worthy, so for my mum, it was about protecting my future, and that’s what motivated her. She didn’t know any different. She’d gone through the process, she’d had the same thing.”

The abuse

Unfortunately, there are many others in the UK with stories similar to Khatra’s, with FGM being just one of the many forms of HBA. According to the latest data released by the Home Office, there were 2,887 HBA-related offences recorded by police in England and Wales in the year to March 2022 alone. 

Dr Roxanne Khan is the founder and director of the Honour Abuse Research Matrix (HARM), whose aim is to bridge the gap between academia and policy, facilitating collaboration between experts in both fields. According to her, Government statistics such as these are just the tip of the iceberg. 

“They reflect extreme cases, and the cases in which somebody has intervened. We know that a majority of cases involve people who do firstly have difficulty recognising they’re a victim of this type of abuse because it’s very difficult for a person to acknowledge they’ve been victimised. 

“Secondly they have to have been brave enough to step out and say to somebody else ‘I’m going to report this’,” she said. Indeed, reporting an HBA offence entails bringing criminal charges against a relative or member of the community – a decision almost guaranteeing shame and exclusion.

“Thirdly, police are struggling to decide on how to record these crimes, and we know that different police forces are recording it differently – some police forces will be recording it as domestic abuse, others will be recording it as child abuse or harassment – so we don’t know its true or genuine scope,” Dr Khan added.

As a result, despite the number of processed HBA-related offences increasing by six percent on the previous year, this does not automatically imply such crimes are becoming more prevalent. Improvements in the recording or recognition of HBA offences, or a higher proportion of victims being able to come forward – as was the case after the end of lockdown – could also be at play. Although Dr Khan commends the Home Office statistics for providing concrete evidence of the problem, she sees them as “only a snapshot of the reality of what actually occurs in the UK.”

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The victims

Established in 1993, Karma Nirvana was the first UK-based charity dedicated to helping the victims and survivors of HBA. The organisation runs the Honour Based Abuse Helpine, which last year received 2,274 calls. 

By tracking the characteristics of callers, their database paints the most accurate picture available of who the victims of HBA are. The vast majority, 85 percent, were women.

Just under half of all callers, 45 percent, were of Asian or Asian British ethnicity, four percent were black and three percent were white. More than a third chose not to disclose their ethnic group. 

Teenagers and young adults aged between 16 and 25 accounted for 23 percent of callers, 14 percent were aged between 26 and 35, and eight percent were between 36 and 45 years old.

In terms of who was perpetrating the abuse, 22 percent of helpline callers said they were victimised by their partner, 11 percent said they were suffering at the hands of their father, 10 percent were suffering abuse from their mother, nine percent from an ex-partner, husband or wife, and four percent from a brother. 

In the past year, the number of those calling after having fled HBA shot up by 52 percent – likely reflective of victims leaving abusive households in which they were trapped during lockdowns. The data shows 29 percent of victims who called for help had escaped their abusers last year, as opposed to 17 percent during the pandemic.

Savera UK is another charity tackling culturally-specific abuse. According to its CEO and founder, Afrah Qassim, the organisation saw a 30 percent uptick in referrals during the first lockdown. “People at risk were trapped at home, often with multiple perpetrators and no access to the places where they are not usually monitored and may usually be able to access help, such as places of education,” she said.

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The crimes

According to the Home Office data, controlling and coercive behaviour (CCB) was the most common form of HBA over the past year, tied to 17 percent of cases. CCB describes a variety of acts designed to make the victim feel powerless in an intimate or familial relationship – emotional abuse, forced isolation from friends or family, or financial control to name just a few.

Assault with and without injury accounted for 14 percent of offences each, while rape and kidnapping were the reported crime in six percent of cases each. There were also 141 offences of forced marriage. According to the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit, 35 percent of cases in 2021 involved victims below the age of 18.

FGM was made a specific criminal offence in the UK in 1985. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 expanded the law to make it a crime for any person, regardless of residency or nationality, to perform FGM in the UK or to assist in FGM being performed outside of the UK. 

For her part, Khatra explained: “For me, I wouldn’t want my mum to be arrested for what she’d done because it came from a good place.”

The Home Office is aware of 77 FGM offences having been recorded by police in the UK over the past year.

The first prosecution didn’t go ahead until 2015. The first, and thus far only, successful conviction wasn’t delivered until 2019 – when a Ugandan woman was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for cutting her three-year-old daughter. 

The support

It was this 2019 case that inspired Khatra to share her story and become a Savera UK Survivor Ambassador. Ms Qassim, the charity’s founder, told “We advocate, safeguard and put support in place. We also help survivors with other challenges, such as accessing immigration and education support and avoiding isolation, through our regular drop-in activities. We also provide ongoing emotional, financial, and practical support.”

Khatra is now also the director and owner of KP Aesthetics and the mother of two children. According to her, the best way to tackle the issue is through education and destigmatisation.

She said: “There are high-profile people that could come up that can speak about it. There was a time where we felt uncomfortable talking about mental health or domestic abuse but once something is normalised, and these conversations are normalised, then it doesn’t become so difficult.” 

What you don’t want to do, she claims, is to marginalise a particular community or ethnicity for their deep-rooted customs. Dr Khan agrees, believing this only further isolates the victims and makes them less likely to come forward “for fear of being treated in a prejudicial way.”

When asked what message she would leave to young girls suffering through HBA given the opportunity, Khatra said: “Don’t let something like this define you. I’ve had a successful career, I’ve got an amazing supportive family. 

“What I went through as a child motivated me to not live in the world that I was brought up in but to try and achieve and be better for myself and get what I can out of my existence, my world. It hasn’t defined me. Those experiences, those adversities have given me strength and I’ve used them in a positive way.”

If you need support or advice on any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact Karma Nirvana for free on 0800 5999 247, Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. If you’re in an emergency situation, please call 999. 

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