Ten years after the murder of Banaz Mahmod, we are still failing to protect victims of abuse & ‘honour’ based violence
“People are following me, they are still following me. That’s the main reason that I came to the police station. In the future, at any time, if anything happens to me, it’s them.”
These are the words of 19-year old Banaz Mahmod as she describes on police videotape the attempts by her own family members to take her life. She goes on to say:
“Now that I have given my statement, what can you do for me?”
Sadly, it turned out that the answer was “nothing”. Banaz went back to her family home in Mitcham, South London. Three months later, on 24th January 2006, her repeated warnings to the police that someone was trying to kill her were borne out as she was murdered by multiple members of her family. In the years after Banaz’s death, after investigations took place and following the release of Deeyah Khan’s award-winning documentary, Banaz, A Love Story, it came to light that the young woman came into contact with police services at least five times before she was murdered.
The executive summary of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC)’s report into this matter highlighted that on one such occasion on 31st December 2005, the downstairs neighbour of Banaz’s grandmother in Wimbledon had contacted the police to advise that the glass panels of her side-door had been broken. Whilst the police recorded the matter as a burglary, staff and customers in the café in Hatfield Road into which Banaz had run saw that she was distressed and bleeding from cuts to her hands. She told them she had been forced to drink alcohol, that people were “after her” and that she had broken a window to escape. When an ambulance was called, Banaz admitted to the ambulance crew that she had broken a window but added that her father had forced her to drink alcohol and was trying to kill her.
The two police officers who were dispatched to the scene questioned Banaz about the broken window. They were told by witnesses and nursing staff that Banaz had claimed someone was trying to kill her. Despite this, the IPCC report found that the female police officer attending the scene showed little empathy and conducted an insufficiently diligent investigation. In fact, the officer noted that Banaz was “kicking and screaming” and “very dramatic”, and told her she needed to “calm down” or she would be arrested for criminal damage. The IPCC concluded overall that there was a lack of awareness within the police forces of the trigger factors of domestic violence and recommended that police forces in England and Wales should recognise that “honour based violence” is more prevalent than previously understood.
Yet ten years later, we still find ourselves in the same situation of failing to safeguard victims of abuse. The Rotherham child abuse scandal has thrown the scale of our failure into harsh light. An independent inquiry into this scandal concluded in its initial report that an estimated 1400 children had been sexually abused between 1997 and 2013, predominantly by gangs of British-Pakistani men. Abuses described included abduction, rape, torture and sex trafficking of children. The inquiry’s initial report also condemned the failure of the authorities to act effectively against the abuse and even, in some cases, to acknowledge it was taking place.
Despite the fact that most of the perpetrators were described as being of Pakistani origin, reporters and councillors felt nervous pointing this out for fear of being side-lined or labelled racist. One reporter, for example, told Panorama that she had been accused of being insensitive when she told one official that most of the perpetrators were from Rotherham’s Pakistani community. A female colleague talked to her about the incident. “She said, ‘You must never refer to that again – you must never refer to Asian men’ … And her other response was to take me to a two-day ethnicity and diversity course to raise my awareness of ethnic issues.”
The cultural and racial elements of this scandal may be difficult to discuss, particularly for those of us who find ourselves fearful that it will inflame the increasing anti-Muslim bigotry of the far-right, which we also face. For example, the inquiry report states on page 93, at para 11.12, that:
“Several councillors interviewed believed that by opening up the issues they could be ‘giving oxygen’ to racist perspectives that might in turn attract extremist political groups and threaten community cohesion. To some extent this concern was valid, with the apparent targeting of the town by groups such as the English Defence League.”
Yet these concerns cannot override the safeguarding duties we owe to victims of horrific, widespread abuse. In fact, our collective failure to deal with the racial elements of the abuse is what gives way for far-right groups to use the Rotherham victims for their own agenda.
Other aspects of the scandal are also just as worrying. For example, the report states on page 91 that:
“There was too much reliance by agencies on traditional community leaders such as elected members and imams as being the primary conduit of communication with the Pakistani-heritage community. The Inquiry spoke to several Pakistani-heritage women who felt disenfranchised by this and thought it was a barrier to people coming forward to talk about CSE [child sexual exploitation’.
Others believed that there was wholesale denial of the problem in the Pakistani-heritage community in the same way that other forms of abuse were ignored. Representatives of women’s groups were frustrated that interpretations of the Borough’s problems with CSE were often based on an assumption that similar abuse did not take place in their own community and were therefore concentrated mainly on young white girls. Both women and men from the community voiced strong concern that other than two meetings in 2011, there had been no direct engagement with them about CSE over the past 15 years, and this needed to be addressed urgently, rather than ‘tiptoeing’ around the issue. [Emphasis mine].
In light of this, it is time for agencies to stop treating self-appointed ‘community leaders’ – who are mostly male – as the gatekeepers of minority communities and engage with the women in the communities directly to prevent child abuse.
We should also note that it was not only concern over the background of the perpetrators which led to the abuse being underplayed. The report also highlights that “at an operational level, the police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime.” The victims were cast off as “undesirables”, their pain and suffering ignored, much like the unsympathetic treatment of Banaz by the officer who told her to calm down or face being arrested for criminal damage.
The aftermath of tragedies such as the murder of Banaz Mahmod and the Rotherham scandal have led to welcome changes in policing and agency responses. For example, according to the Rotherham report, the Police are now well-trained in CSE, but prosecutions still remain low in number. However, the report highlights that children’s social care services and councils are facing challenges in dealing with increased financial pressures, which inevitably impact on frontline services. We have seen other cuts to policing, housing, and the removal of the spare room subsidy for recipients of housing benefits, all of which disproportionately impact victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable groups, such as those who are disabled. For example, one of the claimants in the successful legal challenge against the “Bedroom Tax” was a victim of domestic violence who had to have a ‘panic room’ installed in her home as a result of threats to her life.What’s more, a research report conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has concluded that “evidence from this and other studies suggest that ethnic minority women-only services may be at particular risk from the combined effect of commissioning frameworks and decreased funding.” We also have to consider how many male victims of domestic violence are going unnoticed.
Working in the legal sector has also brought to light for me just how difficult it has become for victims of domestic violence to secure legal aid since the changes introduced by LASPO (The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012), which came into effect in 2013. As a result of these changes, a third of domestic violence victims are unable to provide the required evidence to secure legal aid, according to a Parliamentary watchdog report. Further, in 2014, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) released a damning report which concluded that “only 8 out of 43 forces respond well to domestic violence.” This report was followed by a subsequent investigation last year into the effectiveness of police responses to ‘honour’ based violence. Unsurprisingly, the report concluded that just 3 of the 43 forces were fully effective in their response, despite the fact “that no force in England and Wales can afford to say: ‘It doesn’t happen here’.”
It is clear: ten years after the murder of Banaz, we are still failing to safeguard victims of abuse and violence. How many more have to die before we demand adequate funding to safeguard all victims?