A question of honour: Police say 17,000 women are victims every year

Ministers are stepping up the fight against so-called 'honour' crime and forced marriages. Detectives say official statistics are 'merely the tip of the iceberg' of this phenomenon. Brian Brady investigates

Up to 17,000 women in Britain are being subjected to "honour" related violence, including murder, every year, according to police chiefs.

And official figures on forced marriages are the tip of the iceberg, says the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

It warns that the number of girls falling victim to forced marriages, kidnappings, sexual assaults, beatings and even murder by relatives intent on upholding the "honour" of their family is up to 35 times higher than official figures suggest.

The crisis, with children as young as 11 having been sent abroad to be married, has prompted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to call on British consular staff in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan to take more action to identify and help British citizens believed to be the victims of forced marriages in recent years.

The Home Office is drawing up an action plan to tackle honour-based violence which "aims to improve the response of police and other agencies" and "ensure that victims are encouraged to come forward with the knowledge that they will receive the help and support they need". And a Civil Protection Bill coming into effect later this year will give courts greater guidance on dealing with forced marriages.

Commander Steve Allen, head of ACPO's honour-based violence unit, says the true toll of people falling victim to brutal ancient customs is "massively unreported" and far worse than is traditionally accepted. "We work on a figure which suggests it is about 500 cases shared between us and the Forced Marriage Unit per year," he said: "If the generally accepted statistic is that a victim will suffer 35 experiences of domestic violence before they report, then I suspect if you multiplied our reporting by 35 times you may be somewhere near where people's experience is at." His disturbing assessment, made to a committee of MPs last week, comes amid a series of gruesome murders and attacks on British women at the hands of their relatives.

Marilyn Mornington, a district judge and chair of the Domestic Violence Working Group, warned that fears of retribution, and the authorities' failure to understand the problem completely, meant the vast majority of victims were still too scared to come forward for help. In evidence to the home affairs committee, which is investigating the problem, she said: "We need a national strategy to identify the large number of pupils, particularly girls, missing from school registers who have been taken off the register and are said to be home schooled, which leads to these issues. Airport staff and other staff need to be trained to recognise girls who are being taken out of the country.

"We are bringing three girls a week back from Islamabad as victims of forced marriage. We know that is the tip of the iceberg, but that is the failure end. It has to be part of education within the communities and the children themselves."

Women who have been taken overseas to be married against their will are now being rescued on an almost daily basis. The Government's Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) handled approximately 400 cases last year – 167 of them leading to young Britons being helped back to the UK to escape unwanted partners overseas. And it is not just women who are affected. Home Office figures show that 15 per cent of cases involve men and boys.

In an attempt to crack down on the crimes being committed in the name of honour, police are to introduce a new training package that will give all officers instructions on handling honour cases. In addition, detectives are believed to be conducting a "cold case" style review of previous suicides amid suspicions that cases of honour killings are more common than previously thought.

Almost all victims of the most extreme crimes are women, killed in half of cases by their own husbands. Sometimes murders are carried out by other male relatives, or even hired killers. The fear that many thousands are left to endure honour violence alone may be supported by the disturbing details of the incidence of suicide within the British Asian community. Women aged 16 to 24 from Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi backgrounds are three times more likely to kill themselves than the national average for women of their age.

A report published last week by the Centre for Social Cohesion found that many women felt unable to defy their families and therefore "suffer violence, abuse, depression, anxiety and other psychological problems that can lead to self-harm, schizophrenia and suicide". James Brandon, co-author of Crimes of the Community: Honour-based Violence in the UK, said: "The Government is still not taking honour crime seriously. Until this happens, the ideas of honour which perpetuate this violence will continue to be passed on through generations. Religious leaders, local authorities and central government must work together to end such abuses of human rights."

The human cost of honour crime was vividly captured in a haunting video message from murdered Banaz Mahmood, who revealed how her own father had tried to kill her after she abandoned her arranged marriage and fell in love with another man. In the grainy message she told how he plied her with brandy – the first time she had ever drunk alcohol – pulled the curtains and asked her to turn around.

The 19-year-old fled, but less than a month after making the grainy video on a mobile phone, Banaz was dead. Her naked body was found buried in a yard in Birmingham in 2006, more than 100 miles from her London home. She had been raped and tortured by men hired by her uncle to kill her. Mahmood's father, uncle and one of her killers were sentenced to a total of 60 years in jail for the murder.

And the fatal potential of honour disputes was laid bare last month when a coroner said he was convinced that a Muslim teenager who feared she was being forced into an arranged marriage by her parents had suffered a "vile murder." Ian Smith said the concept of an arranged marriage was "central" to the circumstances leading up to the death of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed, whose decomposed body was discovered on the banks of the River Kent at Sedgwick, Cumbria, four years ago. After running away from home in February 2003, Shafilea told housing officers: "My parents are going to send me to Pakistan and I'll be married to someone and left there." The tragic story of the bright teenager who wanted to go to university and study law is far from the only example of the anguish suffered by British teenagers in recent years.

Toafiq Wahab, British consul in Dhaka, Bangladesh, recalls a "rescue mission" to recover a 17-year-old who called his office from Sylhet. "We had to track her down and 36 hours from taking that call, we had turned up at her house with an armed police escort," he said. "The house was filled with over 20 of her relations, most of whom were from Britain and stunned to see me. They obviously did not want her to leave. We simply asked her if she wanted to leave and go back to the UK in the presence of all her family and she agreed. I then spoke to the family and explained what we were doing and tried to make them understand. In the end, we had to get the police to assist in helping us to leave."

Former Bradford policeman Philip Balmforth, who works with vulnerable Asian women, said he saw 395 cases of forced marriage in the city last year. "I had a case of a 14-year-old girl at school," he recalled. "The teacher tells me that the girl claims to have been married. So I went along to the school with a Muslim colleague. We saw the girl. We asked her a few questions and we were not sure. Then the girl said: 'If you don't believe me I have the video at home.'"

In Bradford alone, a total of 250 girls aged between 13 and 16 were taken off the school rolls last year because they failed to return from trips abroad. Campaigners suspect many were victims of forced marriages.

"If contacted by concerned young British men and women in the UK, the FMU provides free and confidential advice on the potential dangers of being forced into marriage overseas and precautions to take to help avoid this happening," said a Foreign Office spokesperson last night. "If we learn that a British national overseas is being forced into marriage, or has already been forced into marriage, we look at various means of consular assistance ranging from action through the courts to rescue missions."

"The FMU can also help to arrange accommodation for victims for when they return to the UK and can refer victims to counselling and supports groups, legal centres, and so on.

"When it is necessary, the FMU and our embassies and high commissions work closely with the police and judiciary overseas in order to organise emergency rescue and repatriation missions."

Britain's hidden scandal

The kidnap victim

In June 2000 Narina Anwar, 29, and her two sisters claim they were tricked by their parents into going on a family holiday to a remote village in Pakistan, where they were held captive for five months in an attempt to force them to marry three illiterate villagers. The sisters fled to Lahore and contacted the British High Commission, which persuaded their parents to hand over their children's passports so they could return home.

The 'slave'

Gina Singh, 28, sued her former mother-in-law for £35,000 in 2006 after she was forced to work 17 hours a day around the house. Ms Singh, from Nottingham, was forbidden to leave the house on her own after an arranged marriage in 2002.

The runaway wife

In 1983, Zana Muhsen and her sister Nadia, from Birmingham, were pushed by their father to visit Yemen and forced to marry. Zana, now 35, escaped eight years later. Her father had sold her for a few thousand dollars. The experience is recounted in her book, 'Sold'.

The murder victim

Surjit Athwal disappeared with Bachan Athwal, her mother-in-law, after a family wedding in India in 1998. Her body was never found. Bachan later boasted that she arranged for her son, Sukhdave, to murder Surjit after finding out that she was having an affair.

The attempted suicide

Shafilea Ahmed was the victim of a suspected honour killing. The 17-year-old's body was found months after she had returned from a trip to Pakistan in 2003. On the trip she drank bleach. The coroner said he saw it as a 'desperate measure' to avoid a forced marriage.

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