With the landmark Domestic Abuse (DA) Bill due to make its way through the House of Lords in the UK, this article examines the Bill’s many holes that will leave women fleeing ‘honour’-based abuse to fall through the cracks.
To some extent, the UK has become marginally more progressive and forward-thinking in the last few years. Archaic attitudes towards women, homosexuality and diversity are beginning to unravel, albeit slowly. However, despite the UK’s progress, the Government’s response to the ongoing issue of domestic abuse – and specifically honour-based abuse – has lagged behind the rest of this social shift.
The Home Office’s has seriously dragged its feet in tackling domestic abuse in comparison to the persisting scale of the problem; while in one breath the Government estimates the annual cost of domestic violence to cost the taxpayer £66 billion, in the next it only pledges £76 million to address it– a figure less than 0.12% of their own estimate.
Finally, the Domestic Abuse (DA) Bill lies a hair’s breadth away from passing into full legislation, promising new criminal sanctions, strengthened restraining orders and an end to victims being cross-examined by their abuser in court. It offers the first of its kind statutory definition of abuse that recognises physical and non-physical harm simultaneously such violence, rape, exploitation, coercion, emotional and economic abuse. There are clearly many positives in this Bill, however, after an entire year of debates, it remains disappointingly flawed. Not only does it lack extending support to migrant survivors, but it ignores the plight of those experiencing so-called ‘honour’-based abuse (HBA).
HBA is not a defining feature of any particular faith, culture or community, however, it is steeped in outdated views around gender roles and involves a code of rules as to how mostly women, and usually Black, Asian or ethnic minority women, should behave. If a woman or girl is perceived to have broken these rules or traditions, she is deemed to have brought ‘shame’ on her family, friends and/or social group. The aftermath of which puts her at risk of a myriad of abuse and violence, including emotional abuse, coercive control, manipulation, kidnap, attacks, surveillance, harassment and more. In many severe cases, not only can it lead to social ostracization, but Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced marriage and ‘honour killings’.
To this day, perpetrators can only be prosecuted for the specific crime they have committed, for instance, stalking or grievous bodily harm, rather than for exhibiting a pattern of violence that should fall under the bandwidth of domestic and ‘honour’-based abuse.
On average, 12 women and girls are murdered in the UK in the name of “honour” every year, but charities believe official figures relating to HBA are a drop in the ocean to the real scale of the abuse. This is mainly because victims either fear coming forward, are too young, lack the resources or English ability to report it, or simply don’t have an opportunity to speak out.
Yet the DA Bill, despite making “superficial” references to FGM and forced marriage, denies identifying HBA as a unique, standalone form of domestic abuse. And the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) doesn’t recognise it either, stating that there is “no specific offence” of HBA. To this day, perpetrators can only be prosecuted for the specific crime they have committed, for instance, stalking or grievous bodily harm, rather than for exhibiting a pattern of violence that should fall under the bandwidth of domestic and ‘honour’-based abuse.
In cases such as that of Banaz Mahmod, who was murdered by her father and uncle for loving someone without their permission, even pregnant women can become the target of this brutality. Her sister, Payzee, explains that perpetrators “can see every single thing that you do, having access to your finances, to your social media… [and] to the conversations that you’re having”. While both Banaz’s father and uncle were given life sentences for Banaz’s murder, over a decade later prosecutions for HBA remain stagnant.
As Banaz’s case shows, HBA commonly involves a multitude of abusers targeting one individual all at once, and is not limited to immediate family members (parents) or partners. However, the DA Bill does not recognise neighbours, friends and extended family members to be cable of domestic abuse, leaving victims to suffer in silence out of fear that reporting the abuse will fall on deaf ears and/or make them vulnerable to ‘revenge attacks’ and murder.
There are additional complications if the victim attempting to flee abuse does not have British Citizenship. Not only is the victims’ insecure immigration status used as a weapon by her abuser(s) to threaten her with, but the Government endorses and perpetuates this treatment by allowing police forces to report survivors to immigration enforcement if they disclose their ordeal.
Amendments that were debated to safeguard migrant victims of abuse within the DA Bill were all dropped. Subsequently, leaving survivors with a grim illusion of choice between detention, deportation, destitution or continuous abuse and violence.
It is evident institutional racism is at large here, and the past decade exhibits a catalogue of human rights violations and injustices that stand as testimony to this fact.
It is abundantly clear the DA Bill remains severely flawed – it fails in its most basic, stated aim to protect all women and girls from abuse. Instead, it remains a diluted, half-hearted attempt to protect women, but only if those women are British, white and fleeing the “conventional” form of domestic abuse at the hands of a spouse or partner.
It is no coincidence that migrant women and Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority women fleeing honour-based violence have been overlooked in the blueprint of this ‘groundbreaking’ legislation. It is evident institutional racism is at large here, and the past decade exhibits a catalogue of human rights violations and injustices that stand as testimony to this fact. But abuse survivors should not be used as political pawns in the Government’s arbitrary anti-migrant game, where it attempts to reduce immigration numbers at all costs.
It is paramount that the next time someone finds themselves in the position of Banaz that they feel safe to contact the authorities and seek help. Until then, the fates of migrant and Black, Asian and minority ethnic British women up and down the country lie in the hands of the same policy makers who still have not accepted their obligation to prevent abuse in any way, shape or form.