Murdered for the sake of honour

15th June 2012 at 01:00
Tough new laws to protect the victims of these crimes are on the horizon, but can schools themselves do more?

Even by hardened police standards it was a brutal murder: the slaughter of a 17-year-old girl as she walked along a deserted canal towpath with her boyfriend - who ended her life with a frenzied knife attack.

This was an honour killing, so-called because victims are deemed to have dishonoured a family. Laura Wilson - believed to be the UK's first white victim of this increasingly common crime - was murdered by Ashtiaq Asghar in 2010 because he thought she had brought "shame" on two British Pakistani families. Asghar was subsequently jailed for 17 years.

According to the most recent police figures, 2,823 honour incidents, ranging from threats to murder, were reported in the UK in 2010. For the 12 forces who also provided figures for the previous year, this represented an overall 47 per cent increase. The true tally is likely to be even higher, because only 39 out of 52 forces were able to give data, and some families cover up such crimes.

The Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (Ikwro), a London- based charity that obtained the figures under the Freedom of Information Act, attributes the rise in part to growing police awareness and because more of the surviving victims come forward. But it believes that there has also been an increase in violence against young people who refuse to accept their families' demands.

Figures from 2009 reveal that a quarter of the victims are under 18 - mostly girls and young women, but there are some male victims, too - and that many of them are still at school. Yet their teachers are nervous about addressing a problem that many see as a cultural issue. Frustrated campaigners, however, say it is child abuse. And they're urging educational authorities to take immediate action.

Many cases of honour killings involve Muslim or Sikh families originally from south Asia. But increasingly incidents are being reported involving Muslims from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran and Iraq.

In some families, if children refuse to agree to an arranged marriage, want to leave an abusive marriage, want to marry by choice, engage in homosexual acts or have sex outside marriage, they are deemed to have dishonoured their family. Even wearing Western-style dress has provoked brutal physical attacks.

Asghar felt that Laura Wilson had "dishonoured" two Pakistani families by having sex with a man from each of them and having a baby. "It was all about shame and family honour," says a senior police officer involved in the case. The father of the baby, also tried for Wilson's murder, was acquitted.

Karma Nirvana, a charity that offers support to victims of forced marriages and honour-based violence, receives around 500 calls a month on its helpline. Most callers are under 21 and say they are being abused for Western behaviour, resisting arranged marriages or dating somebody of whom their family disapproves. Nearly half (45 per cent) are British Pakistanis, 11 per cent are British Indians, 7 per cent are British Bangladeshis and 4 per cent are white British.

But the number of calls soars to around 700 a month during the UK summer school holidays, when many children are taken abroad to meet the husband or wife their family has chosen for them. Many schoolchildren expected by their teachers to do A levels simply fail to return to school.

"The victims suffer emotional and physical abuse, threats, violence and even death," says Jasvinder Sanghera, chief executive of Karma Nirvana, who ran away from home herself as a teenager, to escape a forced marriage. "This is child abuse, but too many teachers are nervous about asking questions if children from those communities stop turning up for school."

Since 2008, the British courts have issued more than 300 forced marriage protection orders. But the government considers this to be inadequate as a deterrent and, earlier this month, home secretary Theresa May announced tough new laws which will mean that forcing someone to marry will become a serious crime in its own right. Parents who force their children to wed will face a jail sentence.

Sanghera believes that schools also have a crucial role to play in breaking the cycle of abuse. "Schools have a statutory child-protection role and they see the children five days a week, so they are best placed to spot any who might be at risk."

The charity contacted around 100 schools in England last year but claims that only two invited Sanghera to talk on the subject. In April, at the NUT conference in Torquay, the campaigner says she was shocked that none of the teachers she spoke to was aware of government guidelines for dealing with honour issues in schools.

The guidance tells teachers how to spot the signs of a child suffering honour-based abuse and urges them to be vigilant because school or college is often the only place where the potential victim can speak freely. It also explains how to deal with the victim, emphasising that - unlike in most cases of abuse - the teachers must not contact family members because they are likely to be the perpetrators.

Landau Forte College in Derby, where 30 per cent of pupils come from ethnic minorities, was one school that did open its doors to Sanghera because Elizabeth Coffey, the principal, is concerned about the problem. In recent years she has dealt with pupils who feared they were about to be forced into marriage. They included a 15-year-old boy who disappeared just before his GCSE exams and returned later in the year, married.

"He did talk about the fact that he had to go and get married, and then he just didn't turn up for his exams," Coffey says. "We took that to social services."

Diana Nammi, founder of Ikwro, shares Coffey's concerns. When she spoke to students at a sixth-form college in London, the charity was alerted to three abuse cases within the week, including two girls whose families had threatened to kill them if they refused to be married.

The NUT supports campaigns such as End Violence Against Women, but campaigners want the unions to encourage teachers to do more, and challenge attitudes that lead to violence. The police have also faced criticism for not taking honour crime seriously.

Much remains to be done and schools must be at the heart of this, Sanghera says. "If schools engage they can have a dramatic impact. Otherwise there will be more forced marriages, more violence and more deaths."

David Harrison has carried out major investigations into human rights abuses. To contact the Karma Nirvana helpline for pupils and teachers, call 0800 599 9247


Key stage 2: Teaching tolerance

Help pupils to understand religious viewpoints from around the world with this range of creation stories from Twotone1.

Key stage 3: Islam Britain 2012

Get students to question how much "religious teachings" have to do with modern-day violence in a source analysis lesson from Mike Stallard.

Key stage 4: Women and Islam

Crownjoolz71's RE lesson is a great starting point for a debate about women's rights in Islam.

Key stage 5: Forced issue

For more on forced marriage and the powers that teachers have to get involved, try the investigation by Teachers TV.

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