Christmas Appeal: Women lead the fight-back against 'honour killings'

In the final part of our series, Paul Vallely reports on the work of campaigners for women's rights

These are some of the things that can get a woman killed: wearing make-up; going to the cinema; chewing gum; drinking water in the street; chatting to a male neighbour; talking on the phone; talking to someone of a different race; having a man request a song for you on the radio; publishing love poetry; rejecting an arranged marriage; demanding a divorce; being raped; having an unsuitable boy-friend, or getting pregnant.

Every year, a total of 5,000 women across the world are killed - by their relatives - in so-called "honour killings", because they were said to have brought shame on their families. That is the official United Nations figure.

Most campaigners believe that to be a vast under-estimate. There were 4,383 documented cases in Pakistan over the past four years. It is on the rise amid the anarchy of contemporary Iraq. In the UK there have been 12 cases catalogued, the House of Lords was told last month. And the Metropolitan Police are re-examining 117 other suspicious deaths.

The highlighting of all this is an extraordinary success for the International Campaign Against Honour Killings, created in the past two years by women refugees and asylum-seekers. It was founded as the result of a human rights course run for refugees by Education Action International, one of the three charities being supported by The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year.

Before the group formed, police tended to take at face value reports of young girls killed by strangers or intruders, especially since the stories were vouched for by all the members of the dead woman's family.

The campaign's director Diana Nammi, 39, an Iranian Kurd, says: "Police were not aware in the early cases how families persistently lie to protect the killer and mislead the police. If the woman had gone to a police station and said, 'My father is going to kill me' no one would have believed her. We told police to look inside the family."

Honour killings "are planned and deliberate", says another campaigner, Houzan Mahmoud, 30, a refugee from Iraq. "And the killer will have the support of the rest of the family and community."

That support is often more than just tacit. "When a woman brings shame to her family they all meet in a family court and together decide that she must die and who will do it," says Ms Nammi. "They often choose the youngest brother because they think he'll get the lightest sentence."

Sometimes they hire hitmen. At times, even the women of the family help. In Derby, a mother sat on the legs of her pregnant daughter, Rukhsana Naz, while the girl's brother strangled her with flex.

Attempts are made to divert suspicion. Deaths by burning - "accidents" in the kitchen - are another method, a government minister told the Lords. Others are made to look like suicides (which may explain why the suicide rate is double among Asian women in the UK).

Some girls have been taken out of the country to be murdered. "It's a worldwide problem," says Ms Mahmoud. "That is why it needs an international campaign." The campaign is trying to change attitudes in several areas. Police now show greater understanding. So do judges.

Just two years ago, a judge reduced a man's sentence for killing his daughter from 20 to 14 years, citing "irreconcilable cultural differences between traditional Kurdish values and values of Western society".

Ms Nammi and Ms Mahmoud campaigned against that. "Culture is about language, music, food, dance, not killing," says Ms Nammi angrily. "Everyone must be treated equally. My life is more important than my culture." That is an attitude reflected in both more recent comments from judges and from politicians in the House of Lords debate.

There have been wider changes. In Turkey, the law traditionally gave lighter sentences for "honour killings". But after British politicians made it clear that was unacceptable in a future EU member, the law was altered. The skills the campaigners have developed were nurtured in one of 10 courses run by Education Action. Richard Germond of the charity's Refugee Advocacy Project, says: "We set them up because we found that refugees were not just concerned about issues they faced in the UK: discrimination, lack of access to health care and housing, hostile interpretations of the law. They were also deeply worried about what was going on in the society they had fled."

After the course - which teaches campaigning and advocacy techniques, with assistance from human rights groups such as Amnesty, trade unions, faith groups and MPs - about half of the 141 graduates have concerned themselves with issues affecting refugees in the UK, and the others are focused on abuses back home. They include disappearances in Eritrea, torture in Sudan, press freedom in Ivory Coast, health rights in Zimbabwe and the detention of human rights activists in western Sahara.

Not everyone approves. Ms Mahmoud, who has had threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, says: "Some men within our community have tried to stop us campaigning on honour killings, saying that we are bringing shame on the community and creating a racist backlash."

She is undeterred. As is Ms Nammi. "It is murder that brings shame on our community," she says. "Not us protesting about murder."

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* A Better Place: Full appeal links.

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