Victims of “honour-based” abuse in London are being forced into marriages where they face a life of modern slavery, campaigners warned today. They spoke out as a joint investigation by The Independent and the London Evening Standard found tens of thousands of girls and women in the capital are hidden victims of such abuse. Police admit they are dealing with the “tip of the iceberg” and politicians stand accused of ignoring the issue over fears of being called racist.
One of the most common examples of “honour-based” abuse (HBA) is forced marriage, with victims often suffering the conditions of slavery through domestic servitude. Other examples include female genital mutilation and “honour killings”.
Police data obtained by The Independent shows that in the 12 months to June there were 495 reported victims of HBA in London. Two were aged under one, three were a year old and nine were under 10.
Jasvinder Sanghera set up Karma Nirvana, a charity for HBA victims, in 2008 after escaping a forced marriage by running away from home aged 16.
Since then it has received more than 58,000 calls. She said “thousands upon thousands” of girls in London were at risk and were being prevented from “embracing British rights, values and democracy”. Women were often forced to marry to be “used as slaves” with those that had escaped describing their marriage as “a sentence”.
She added: “If a girl is not conforming the family will make a decision by marrying her off or killing her. The worst insult they can use is you are behaving like a white woman – they have bigoted, racist views and there is no counter-narrative. They are being radicalised.
“There is fear of being called a racist, fear of treading on cultural toes. British girls are being failed by Britain. The scale is huge, frightening. There are many communities who think like this.”
Karma Nirvana provides training to the police, NHS and social services. Ms Sanghera also acts as an expert witness and lobbies government.
On one occasion a police officer rang the helpline to ask whether it was an acceptable part of someone’s culture for a 26-year-old man to be sleeping with a 12-year-old girl, she said. The reaction from schools was also “damning”, with not enough being done to identify potential victims.
“They don’t want to offend communities. They don’t want to rock the boat,” she added. “There is no statutory duty to report HBA. There is no will to make this part of the Ofsted inspection framework despite our request and numerous representations to ministers.”
A Crown Prosecution Service report last month revealed there were only 215 prosecutions for honour-based violence and forced marriage in Britain in the past year.
One relative of a murdered HBA victim told how she was “failed” by the authorities. Sarbjit Athwal, of Hounslow, helped to jail mother-in-law Bachan Athwal for arranging the murder of Surjit, 27, Bachan’s daughter-in-law.
The Old Bailey heard Surjit was taken in 1998 to a wedding in India where Bachan arranged for her to be drugged, strangled and thrown into a river. She believed Surjit had brought shame on the family by starting an affair. The body was never found. In 2007 Bachan, 70, of Hayes, and her son Sukhdave, 43, were both jailed for life.
Sarbjit, 47, who became a key witness, feared she would suffer the same fate as Surjit. She said: “I lived in a family who believe ‘honour’ was beyond everything and anything. My sister-in-law was murdered. I tried to alert the authorities but they failed me.
“It took three investigations before I was believed. Too many people are getting away with it because police, agencies and authorities do not understand how to protect victims.”
Commander Parm Sandhu, the Metropolitan Police’s lead on HBA, said: “The problem we have is it is unreported. Very, very few individuals come forward. Victims tend to still live with parents. Young brothers and sisters will be punished if they do not toe the line.”
She said there was “self-policing” in communities. “Victims are targeted because their perceived behaviour is considered shameful. They might be seen with a boy, or wear Western clothing. [Community members] will mention it to the parents. It is not just the older generation. We know it is far more that the figures we have got.”
Crime minister Sarah Newton insisted the Government would not allow “political or cultural sensitivities” to obstruct action: “We are working with communities through our FGM and forced marriage units to ensure victims have confidence to come forward.”
Measures include a new offence of failure to protect a girl from FGM; a specific offence of forced marriage; FGM and forced marriage protection orders, and lifelong anonymity for victims. Last year the forced marriage unit handled 307 suspected cases in the capital and 1,428 nationwide.
Tackling HBA is part of the Government’s Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, with £100m funding pledged. Operation Limelight, a safeguarding operation at the UK border, works to identify and protect victims and potential victims.
To report abuse call the Honour Network Helpline on 0800 599 9247