Honour based abuse: the UK’s ‘forgotten’ victims
Since the Coronavirus crisis pushed the UK into uncharted waters in late January, 2020 has shaped up to be a year of unprecedented challenge, fear, and uncertainty. As the virus dominated the headlines and the country was told to “stay home and save lives”, a sinister “shadow pandemic” continued to wreak havoc behind closed doors. With the country on lockdown, Coronavirus was exploited by opportunistic abusers who saw restrictions on gatherings and the closure of businesses as a prime opportunity to isolate and exploit their victims.
Covid-19, the general election and Brexit all delayed the UK’s Domestic Abuse (DA) Bill from being pushed through parliament. The landmark Bill was branded a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” by former Prime Minister Theresa May to give survivors the support and justice they deserve, presenting the end of the traumatic practice that has seen victims cross-examined by their victims in court, new criminal sanctions being ushered in and a new Domestic Violence Commissioner. Perhaps most importantly of all is the recognition of financial abuse, coercive control and non-physical behaviour which will now be included in the UK’s statutory definition of domestic abuse. Ultimately, this means that more victims than ever before will be recognised under the legal definition, providing greater support and resources to those in need.
While the Bill brings hope and opportunity for many victims, thousands are still falling through the cracks and without being formally recognised in law, these victims remain at the mercy of their abusers. So called ‘honour’-based abuse (HBA) is described as “a crime or incident which has or may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of the family and/or community” and these crimes can include female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage, coercive control, attempted murder and murder. Although HBA is characterised by many tactics recognised in the Domestic Abuse Bill, HBA is a unique and standalone form of abuse which is not yet recognised, and it is thought to impact Black, Asian and minority ethnic women more than any other group.
The scale of the HBA crisis is becoming glaringly apparent, particularly to charity helplines such as Refuge who saw a 700% increase in calls in just one day. The Honour-Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVN) estimates that there are around 12 honour-based murders on UK soil each yearhowever, it’s feared that the true scale of abuse may be far greater than initially thought. Natasha Rattu, director of the British charity Karma Nirvana, told ITV news: “What we know about honour-based abuse is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re finding communities affected by this issue that perhaps weren’t coming forward 10 years ago that we need to be able to identify better”.
However, the DA Bill falls short in this respect as the Bill is only capable of recognisingimmediate family members and spouses to be perpetrators of domestic abuse, whereas victims of HBA can be subjected to harassment, violence, threats and abuse from a multitude of abusers who can extend from beyond their household or immediate family bubble.
The omission of HBA from the Bill is made all the more stark by the fact the practice remains one of the most complex forms of abuse to prosecute, in part because the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) can only prosecute perpetrators in line with the specific offence committed, such as grievous bodily harm, rather than a holistic prosecution that includes recognising the perpetrator’s coercive control and hold over their victim.
Jaswant Narwal, CPS lead for HBA, has spoken of the struggles the CPS faces in prosecuting perpetrators stating: “there are serious issues with underreporting, they often involve vulnerable victims, and happen within familial settings and tight-knight communities”. In 2018-2019, the CPS only prosecuted four people for offences relating to forced marriages, with three resulting in prosecution. Low referral and prosecution rates can be attributed to several factors ranging from a reluctance to report incidents, a lack of awareness that forced marriage is illegal and reluctance from the police to question and prosecute family members.
Yet the testimonies of HBA survivors aren’t the only ones to have gone unheard in the making of the DA Bill. Migrant women have also been overlooked as, despite being at an increased risk of domestic abuse, the DA Bill will not safeguard victims from immigration enforcement or deportation if they report their abuser, nor will it provide legitimate financial means for migrant women to escape abuse. Having ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ as a condition of their immigration status has meant migrant abuse victims have been turned away from refuges and provided no safety net to protect them from destitution. Only women with Partner Visas are offered a marginal escape route, leaving the vast majority with permits such as a Work Visa or Student Visa to flee or face abuse entirely alone. Many discussions to amend the DA Bill to cater to the unique experiences of migrant women were had, but all amendments were dropped just as hastily as they were debated.
Further movements to ratify the Istanbul Convention that the UK signed in 2012 have ground to a halt which is another key legislation that would safeguard all women from abuse, irrespective of immigration status, and would provide a cross-collaborative approach to all countries that have signed to extradite and prosecute perpetrators of domestic abuse.
What this suggests is that the Home Office is turning a blind eye to survivors in a futile bid to reduce immigration numbers in the country – being negligent at best, and racist at worst.
It is clear that domestic abuse and, by extension, violence against women and girls (VAWG) will not end forever in this generation as we had hoped, and the fight will fall onto a generation of daughters yet to come as the infamous quote by Audre Lorde goes: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Until then, the DA Bill is one small step up the mountain and women’s struggles will wage on.
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