‘Honour’-based violence: there is a solution, but we must start listening to the experts
This is the full-length version of an article published by the New Statesman on 13 May 2016.
Recently published figures on forced marriage confirm that the crime is vastly under-reported and that only a fraction of investigations result in prosecution. This comes as no surprise to me, and we can confidently expect the same to be true of ‘honour’ related crimes in general, which can include female genital mutilation, domestic servitude, imprisonment, grievous bodily harm, kidnapping, rape and homicide. Although there is continual outcry about the lack of prosecutions, there is little focus on the vast structural and cultural failures within the majority of police forces which make it so incredibly difficult for victims to feel confident enough in their ongoing safety to testify against their own families.
A few months a go, I had a frank conversation with an ex-officer about the challenges in policing forced marriage and ‘honour’ based violence. As someone who has in recent years come to appreciate the challenges in developing policy around this issue, I wanted to know how they play out on the ground for frontline professionals responsible for the safeguarding and protection of those at risk. I was told, somewhat apologetically, “Well I’ve got to be honest, it’s pretty difficult – these aren’t open-and-shut cases, and I know I would much rather have been called out to a domestic violence incident than something like this. At least with that you know you’re going to be pretty much done within a few hours, and most of the time it’s just a case of a couple who have probably had a bit much to drink and things got a bit out of hand. With honour-based violence, that could go on for weeks, if not longer, and it takes time to figure out if that’s what’s even going on.”
Why this blasé, dismissive attitude to ‘honour’ crime (and domestic violence in this case) should continue to persist among those responsible for enforcing the law is beyond me. Since when has the complexity of a crime, or the time and effort required to resolve it, been an acceptable excuse for effectively allowing perpetrators of abuse to act with impunity? But upon reading the report of a recent review carried out by HMIC into the effectiveness of police responses to ‘honour’ based violence, it’s easy to see that this approach is reflected throughout the majority of forces across England and Wales. Only three out of the forty three forces were assessed as being prepared in all essential areas to deal with ‘honour’ based crime. I doubt that the picture would look less bleak throughout the rest of the UK, or that other crucial local authorities and child protection agencies would fare better. Ten years on from the horrific murder of Banaz Mahmod, who approached the police no less than five times before she was brutally raped, murdered and buried in a back garden in South London, it’s clear that lessons still haven’t been learned.
In the years I’ve spent writing about my own experiences of escaping honour abuse and the threat of forced marriage, I’ve consistently felt disheartened by the seemingly insurmountable challenges that stand in the way of effective provision of support. Cuts to funding; profound lack of awareness; apoplectic vitriol directed at communities that are disproportionately affected, and outright denial of the issue within the same communities all impact directly on our ability to address them. Although I would never have accepted the ex-officer’s approach as inevitable, I admit that I was able in the past to believe that there simply wasn’t much that could be done in the short-term to address these widespread failings. The sheer length of time it would take to address the significant scale of cultural and structural change, and the huge amount of resource it would take to establish a consistently effective response across all protection agencies across the country seemed overwhelming. I believed that the best we could do was to continue campaigning for the prioritisation of ‘honour’-based violence as an urgent focus issue within government and among local authority commissioners.
But things have changed in the last year, and I’m much more confident now that we not only have the expertise to deal with these challenges, but we also have the strategy to implement them. In my efforts to use what voice I have to the best and most constructive effect, I try to make sure I’m armed with as much professional and academic knowledge on the issue as possible, on top of my own experiences. I do my best to keep informed of the crucial campaigning work carried out by organisations providing specialist support, and I prioritise consultation with those experts in the field who are out there working on the frontline of policing, training and awareness-raising. In doing so, I’ve had the good fortune to come across individuals who can only be described as heroes, who combine innovative ideas and expertise with tenacity and relentless dedication to tackling human rights abuses head-on, wherever they may occur.
Detective Sergeant Pal Singh is part of the Greenwich Community Safety Unit, and is winner of a Metropolitan Police Service Domestic Abuse Achievement Award for ‘Outstanding Individual Contribution to Victim Care’ during HBV investigations. He has also worked on some of the most high-profile ‘honour’ killings in Britain to date, building up his expertise over the last seventeen years. He is one of only a handful of people that I believe are truly able to understand the challenges we face and provide the real, practical solutions needed to tackle ‘honour’ crime in all its forms.
After spending many years bearing witness to the fatal consequences of inappropriate police responses to HBV, Singh has consistently questioned – to no avail – why specialist HBV units in areas of high risk have not been implemented. It’s unfathomable that this should be the case when we have specialist teams focusing on everything from arts and antiques security and marine policing to dangerous dogs and even plant & agricultural national intelligence, a unit which aims ‘to reduce plant and agricultural machinery theft across the UK’.
Singh suggests that to begin with, a specialist HBV unit covering the whole of London should be set up as a priority, which makes sense given that most recorded incidents take place there. Other high-risk areas include the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Lancashire and Manchester. Under-reporting of HBV-related crime is not based on speculation, it is a reality deduced through analysis of poor and inappropriate recording of crime data, and this issue is referenced throughout the HMIC report as well. Specialist teams would set a strong precedent in flagging and recording such cases with greater ease, while continuing to enable safe reporting by building strong relationships with affected communities through outreach programmes. This would also address a hugely problematic reliance on faith leaders, some of whom are complicit in the abuse. The ‘one-chance rule’ is a fundamental aspect of HBV safeguarding, and Singh has already developed some innovative techniques to support this, including placing victims “under pseudo arrest, using the guise of ‘wasting police time’, in order to transfer them to an environment free of coercion where they can open up in confidence about their concerns.” On occasion, HBV victims are likely to be transferred between forces in order to maintain their ongoing safety, but protection cannot be guaranteed where there is a lack of leadership and wide variation in competency across forces. Given that reporting to the police in itself significantly escalates risk to the victim, this is a real concern. Again, a specialist unit would have the expertise to deal with this. Singh says,
“It is now nationally recognised that the police do not have the ability to protect victims of HBV, or to prosecute their offenders. The creation of specialist units for the secondary investigations into ‘honour’-based violence in areas of high risk would undoubtedly help women who are voiceless and do not enjoy the support of their families or communities. Detectives who form such teams would need to have knowledge of HBV and a commitment to tackling the issue as a whole if they are serious about improving police interaction with vulnerable women.”
Data obtained by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) show that despite under-reporting, there are over 2000 cases of ‘honour’ crime recorded by UK police forces each year, and it’s clear these figures do not reflect the full extent of the problem. It takes time to build understanding and awareness of the issue, and still longer to campaign for the resources and capacity needed to deal with these numbers, and even then there’s no guarantee that these will be granted. While the development and implementation of a national standard of best practice is a worthwhile and important end-goal, we cannot rely solely on this in the short-term, and we are certainly unable to accept the inevitability of more deaths and serious abuse as a consequence of police incompetency in the meantime. How many more have to die before we take start listening to the experts?