Forced marriage isn't a 'religious tradition'. It's plain abuse - and I should know - Uju Ayalogu's Blog for News, Reviews, Articles and More

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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Forced marriage isn't a 'religious tradition'. It's plain abuse - and I should know

Forced marriage isn't a 'religious tradition'. It's plain abuse - and I should know

Jasvinder Sanghera was a victim of honour-based violence

Today, Her Majesties Inspectorate of Constabularies (HMIC) published, according to chief inspector Sir Tom Winsor, ‘one of the most important reports ever produced.’

It’s content? An inspection of the police response to honour-based violence – practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation that are designed to oppress women under the guise of cultural or religious beliefs.

In the first review of police responses, HMIC found that just three out of 43 forces in England and Wales are ‘fully prepared’ to tackle such issues and that current abuse guidelines didn’t take into account the particular challenges posed by honour abuse . It also said that police have been putting victims at risk by tipping off potential perpetrators at an early stage of the investigation, and that victims often aren’t believed.

As a campaigner against and survivor of honour abuse for over 35 years – and head of charity Karma Nirvana - today is a great achievement. For too long we’ve been an afterthought – with this form of abuse (which can include sexual and physical violence, FGM, exploitation, imprisonment, forced childbirth, or abortion) not taken as seriously as others.

Yet, while we cheer this overdue recognition, my heart sinks at the stark reality of how much more we have yet to do and how many victims are still not being protected.

Forced marriage isn't a 'religious tradition'. It's plain abuse - and I should know

Forced marriage happens here in the UK - not just abroad

Since 2008, Karma Nirvana’s national helpline has received more than 45,000 UK calls for support. That is recognised as a drop in the ocean.

The UK government and police forces acknowledge how deeply this abuse remains hidden and that we are dealing with ‘the tip of the iceberg.'

Thousands of victims remain isolated, trapped among multiple family perpetrators. Because, sadly, it is your nearest and dearest who are, more often than not, the abusers in these cases.

It’s something I know first hand. I’m a survivor – having fled a forced marriage I was promised into at the age of eight. From the ages of 11 to 16, I was worn down and made to believe this was part of our ‘tradition’. When I finally left home aged 16, to make the point that I wouldn’t marry a strange man, my parents reported me missing to the police.

The police called home to inform my family that I was safe and well. My mother answered the phone and was clear that if I did not return home then I was dead in their eyes, that I was akin to a prostitute and had dishonoured the family. My choice was simple: go home and give in, or be disowned.

Imagine being 16 faced with the choice of losing everything you have ever known or having it all back with the condition of marrying a stranger. I chose not to go back and have been disowned ever since. The first few years of my life were a haze. It was only when I finally owned that I was the victim and challenged my energy into breaking my silences and no longer putting my life on hold for them that I was able to emerge as a survivor.

But at the same time I had to watch my sisters being taken out of British classrooms with long absences that today are still rarely questioned, and wedded to men they had only ever seen in photographs.

My dear sister Robina suffered a horrific marriage, but her cries for help would repeatedly fall on deaf ears as members of my family and community encouraged mediation and reconciliation that sent her back into the arms of an abuser.

It was deemed dishonourable and shameful to leave your husband. Victims are encouraged to go back, regardless of how horrific the violence may be. In the end, my sister sadly took her own life - setting herself on fire, in an act deemed ‘more honourable’.

Karma Nirvana was born out of her memory and we continue to break the silences of thousands of voiceless women right here in Britain.

Although we were born in Britain, our family dynamics operate on an honour system and don’t allow us to embrace all that Britain stands for: freedom, independence and democracy. The concept of integration becomes ‘dirty’ and you are prevented from assimilating into wider British society. Karma Nirvana receives hundreds of calls every month from British born women who aren’t allowed basic freedoms as they are deemed ‘dishonourable’ - the freedoms most of us take for granted every single day.

Our lives as women are controlled by family members. The local community become their eyes and ears, ready to report back any shameful behaviour.

The fear and associated risks attached to dishonouring your family become part of your psychology, as you’re conditioned to conform. It becomes part of your life. I understand these ‘rules of engagement’ by the time I was eight-years-old. After years of such conditioning and no counter messages - school being your only place of freedom - you begin to normalise the behaviour.

The life of a regular British adolescent teenager becomes a threat to the family dynamic and you’re chastised constantly. This increases when you become aware of your sexuality.

Many of the victims I meet understand it to be dishonourable to look at a boy – let alone wear make-up, have a boyfriend, have autonomy over marriage, use social networking, have a mobile phone – or just have aspirations, as a woman, beyond the age of 16.

These behaviours can be a trigger for significant harm, as the desire to ‘protect’ against ‘dishonour’ and ‘shame’ is used to justify abuse, violence, forced marriage and even murder.

This has been shockingly demonstrated by a number of cases in England and Wales, such as that of Banaz Mahmod. She was 20 years old, in 2005 when she was murdered by her family after being seen kissing her secret boyfriend in public. It was deemed shameful and reported by to her family by a member of the community.

Forced marriage isn't a 'religious tradition'. It's plain abuse - and I should know

Banaz Mahmod was strangled with a shoe lace at her family home in Morden Credit: Met Police/PA

Banaz made several appeals to the police but her pleas that her relatives were capable of killing her were not taken seriously.

Today, with the publication of the HMIC report, we are almost a decade on in our journey.

I am in total agreement with Sir Winsor that this is one of the most important reports ever produced. The big question now is what impact it will have on forces? Will it mobilise police and crime commissioners and chief constables to make improvements by implementing the recommendations?

The need for leadership is crucial if we’re to truly tackle these abuses and challenge perceptions that somehow they are different and part of ‘culture, tradition and religion.’

It’s time for leaders and government departments to raise their heads above the parapet, stand up and make these recommendations come to life. If we’re to ensure the protection of honour abuse victims – that more of them aren’t killed or don’t kill themselves – it’s the only solution.

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