10 April 2024

Honour-based violence has soared in Britain


In recent years, the scourge of ‘honour-based’ violence has shown a disturbing upward trend, with a staggering 60% surge in reported incidents over just two years. Despite their name, there is nothing honourable about these crimes – they are acts of brutality and violence against vulnerable women often from isolated communities.

Defined as crimes committed in the name of protecting familial or community ‘honour’, they are manifestations of archaic beliefs and toxic cultural norms that prioritise control and domination over the lives and autonomy of women. 

The perpetrators of honour-based abuse are not mysterious outsiders lurking in the shadows; they are often the very people entrusted with love and protection – family members. This betrayal of trust is a stark reminder that proximity does not guarantee safety. Moreover, these crimes are not isolated incidents but are deeply ingrained within social structures, perpetuated by an insidious culture of silence and complicity.

At the heart of the issue lies the erosion of social cohesion. When communities prioritise outdated notions of honour over basic human rights and dignity, they create fertile ground for violence to flourish. 

Honour killings most commonly occur among South Asian communities, including those of Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi descent. Additionally, honour killings have also been reported within Kurdish, Turkish, and Arab communities, reflecting a broader cross-section of cultural backgrounds. 

Within some of these communities, family dynamics can be steeped in control and domination, where women are seen as vessels of honour to be protected and controlled at all costs. Any deviation from the prescribed path – whether it’s choosing a partner, pursuing education, or simply asserting independence – can be met with violence and even death.

Let’s not sugarcoat it – this is about men exerting control over women’s bodies and lives, using violence as a tool to maintain dominance and suppress dissent. Every year, we hear the harrowing stories of women like Rukhsana Naz and Banaz Mahmod – women whose lives were callously taken in the name of so-called family honour. These are not anomalies; they are part of a disturbing pattern of violence and oppression that continues to plague our society.

The latest data, sourced by the Family Law Company, reveals a harrowing reality: a 62% increase in reported cases of honour-based abuse from 2020 to 2022. These figures, drawn from 26 out of 39 constabularies, offer a glimpse into the pervasive nature of this crisis, with the Metropolitan Police, West Midlands, and Greater Manchester forces bearing the brunt of the burden.

Within these statistics lie stories of unimaginable suffering: forced marriages, rapes, death threats, and assaults. The numbers paint a chilling portrait of lives torn apart, dreams shattered, and futures extinguished. 

Imran Khodabocus, a director at the Family Law Company, aptly captures the severity of the situation: honour-based offences are not only ‘rising but are also growing more severe’ with each passing year. However, what is perhaps even more alarming is the systemic apathy and neglect that perpetuate this cycle of violence.

Delays in the family courts serve as a stark reminder of the institutional barriers that hinder justice for victims of honour-based abuse. Chronic backlogs, lack of court interpreters, and bureaucratic red tape conspire to leave families, particularly children, in a vulnerable position for months on end. This inexcusable negligence only serves to embolden perpetrators and further victimise those in need of protection.

Moreover, the persistence of forced marriage cases, despite recent legal reforms, underscores the inadequacy of piecemeal solutions in addressing the root causes of honour-based abuse. In 2022, the Forced Marriage Unit, run by the Home Office and Foreign Office, dealt with a total of 302 forced marriage cases (78% involving female victims). The majority of victims (68%) were 25 years old or younger, with 29% of victims aged 17 and under. While raising the legal age of marriage to 18 was a step in the right direction, it alone is not enough to dismantle entrenched cultural norms and beliefs that perpetuate violence and oppression.

To truly tackle honour-based abuse, we must address the underlying factors that fuel its existence: social apathy, cultural normalisation, and systemic barriers to justice. This requires a concerted effort from all levels of society, involving education, legislation, community engagement, and support services. 

Implementing comprehensive educational programs in closed off communities to challenge harmful beliefs and promote sex equality and human rights from an early age should be an urgent priority. This can foster open dialogue within communities to break the cycle of silence and stigma surrounding honour-based abuse, while also empowering bystanders to intervene and support victims.

In the fight against honour-based killings, accurate data is also a powerful weapon. Yet, revelations from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) have exposed a glaring blind spot in our approach: a lack of comprehensive statistics that fail to pinpoint the communities most at risk, particularly South Asian and Middle Eastern populations.

The truth is, without this crucial information, we’re fighting a losing battle. We’re shooting in the dark, unable to effectively target resources or implement strategies to prevent these heinous crimes. 

HMICFRS’s response to a super-complaint from the Halo Project highlights the gravity of the situation. The data on victims of sexual abuse, particularly those connected to honour-based violence, is not just incomplete – it’s practically useless. It lacks depth, fails to consider differences based on ethnicity or vulnerablity, and is riddled with quality concerns.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye any longer. Honour-based killings are not random acts of violence – they are deeply rooted in cultural norms and beliefs. By failing to accurately target the communities most at risk, we are effectively condoning these atrocities and perpetuating a cycle of violence and oppression.

In 2023, the Government rejected calls for a legal definition of honour-based abuse which ignited a firestorm of criticism from MPs, charities, and advocates. The Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) rightly recommended a statutory definition in its 2023 report on honour-based abuse, recognising the urgent need for clarity and consistency in identifying and responding to honour-based violence. Yet, the Government’s response fell short, citing an existing working definition as sufficient – a stance that rings hollow in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

A statutory definition is not a mere bureaucratic exercise – it’s a lifeline for victims and a crucial tool for front-line agencies tasked with combating these crimes. It provides clarity for police officers, social workers, and educators, ensuring that incidents of honour-based abuse are accurately recognized, recorded, and addressed. Lives depend on it. 

For decades, political leaders have tiptoed around the issue, afraid to challenge cultural taboos or risk alienating key voting blocs. In doing so, they have perpetuated a dangerous narrative of cultural relativism, where human rights take a backseat to the preservation of cultural traditions, no matter how harmful or oppressive.

It’s time for our politicians to step up and put a clear and unequivocal definition of honour killings on a statutory footing so we can eradicate this insidious form of violence. It means rejecting the politics of appeasement and embracing a bold vision for a cohesive society where every woman is free to live without fear of violence or oppression – a future where true honour lies in justice, equality, and respect for all.

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Bella Wallersteiner is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.