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Honour-Based Abuse: why it must become a priority



Jess Hull, Senior Analyst | Sarah Hibbert, Analyst

Wednesday 17 May 2023

“Understanding the prevalence of ‘honour’-based abuse, including female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, is challenging as there is limited information”

- Ending Violence Against Girls Strategy 2021

What is honour-based abuse?

‘Honour’-based abuse (HBA) is a term used for abuse committed to protect or defend the honour of a family and/or a community against a victim who is believed to have done something to bring shame to the family or community. But there is no statutory definition.

The Crown Prosecution Service [1] has adopted the following definition: ‘an incident or crime involving violence, threats of violence, intimidation coercion or abuse (including psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse) which has or may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of an individual, family and / or community for alleged or perceived breaches of the family and / or communities’ code of behaviour’.

HBA does not relate to one crime. It covers a range of offences and typically is seen in domestic settings. Crimes most commonly associated with Honour-based abuse include:

  • Forced marriage (FM)

  • Female genital mutilation (FGM)

  • ‘Honour’ killings

However, HBA can take many forms and how harm manifests and impacts victims can vary. Other crimes associated with HBA include: child marriage, virginity testing, enforced abortion, as well as physical, sexual and economic abuse and coercive control [2].

Honour is a complex and layered concept; it is a person’s estimation of their own worth and claim to pride. But it is not just about how an individual sees themselves, it is also how they feel others perceive them. There is huge variation in how people estimate their own worth. This can cause challenges for practitioners or first responders seeking to identify honour as a motivation where judgements are highly subjective.

What is the impact on victims?

The impact of HBA on victims can be detrimental and life-changing. This form of abuse can leave life-long physical, mental and emotional effects on victims. The coercive control underpinning this abuse, based on acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, can become embedded in the victim’s day-to-day experiences, choices and personal identity. HBA can manifest itself in a range of different offences, but is consistent in its damaging impact on victims.

“My husband would beat me daily. I desperately wanted to leave, but my parents and in-laws encouraged me to make it work. They would say to me: What will people say? The fear of bringing shame and the lack of family support trapped me in that marriage for 14 years.”

- Victim of HBA (Karma Nirvana helpline caller) [3]

The deeply embedded control over victims that comes with this abuse can also mean that victims of HBA may be scared to report these crimes for fear that the abuse will escalate. So it can be hard for support services to identify those at risk. For victims of HBA, speaking to the authorities can itself be considered a threat to honour.

“The thing is I cannot press charges because they would know it would be me, and my case would be even harder [...] or they might hurt me more. So I didn’t. I told the police I don’t w

ant to press charges. Let it be. I just want to get out of here.”

- Victim of forced marriage [4]

Beyond bringing “shame” on their families by reporting, victims can also face complex fears of reporting or leaving the abuse. This can include fear of losing family and community support systems, losing their children, homelessness, financial difficulty, fear of deportation if their immigration status is uncertain, rebuilding their identity and value systems and many other complex and nuanced challenges. Being unable to report these crimes and receive support can leave victims isolated.

What is the scale of the problem?

Data on the number of offences recorded by police that are identified as HBA-related have only been collected by the Home Office since April 2019. The latest statistics, for the year ending March 2022, show that there were 2,887 HBA-related recorded offences in England and Wales - a 6% increase on the previous year.

But police recorded figures on HBA-related offences do not fully capture the scale of the problem. For example, data recording relies on first-responders correctly identifying an incident as HBA, as well as accurately flagging the incident on the Record Management System. Deep dive research of police audits shows inconsistencies in HBA incidents being correctly identified [5]. As HBA can take many forms there is a risk that incidents are recorded simply as the front-facing crime, without the correct HBA identifier.

Other data sources can help to fill gaps in police-recorded crime data and provide additional insight on the scale of HBA.

  • In 2021 the UK Forced Marriage Unit supported 337 cases relating to a possible forced marriage and/or female genital mutilation and responded to 868 general enquiries.

  • NHS statistics show that from April 2015, when data collection began, to September 2022, NHS and GP services in England reported 80,985 attendances of women and girls where female genital mutilation was identified. [6]

  • Karma Nirvana, a leading UK HBA charity, has received over 100,000 calls to their Honour Network Helpline since it was set up in 2008. In 2021/22 the charity directly supported 2,289 victims. Of these victims, 514 were fleeing abuse and required safe accommodation and 49 were children at threat of child marriage. [7]

  • Karma Nirvana estimates that 12 honour killings occur in Britain every year - and stresses that this is likely to be an under-estimate. Its 2021-2024 strategy recognises that a key barrier to the progression of HBA policy is the lack of accurate data on the scale and nature of the abuse

What are the current barriers to an effective and nuanced response to HBA?

Practitioners are not equipped to respond to HBA

Awareness of HBA has begun to improve in recent years, and the publication of official statistics marks a step in the right direction. However, it is unclear whether changes to policy on HBA, such as inclusion of HBA under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, have been effective. Notably, there is still a concerning gap in practitioners’ understanding of HBA as well as their ability to effectively identify, respond to and support victims of HBA.

HBA has been described as a ‘hidden crime’ as the nature of the abuse is concealed and can take place behind closed doors in people’s homes. This means it is less visible to professionals, and emergency and support services. A report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) [8] expressed concern that the police did not appreciate or fully understand why victims may be scared to report these crimes, nor did they understand how reporting HBA may aggravate the risk for victims.

Research by the College of Policing concluded that practitioners - including professionals across policing, health, education, local safeguarding children’s boards, probation and fire and rescue - are often not fully equipped to identify and effectively respond to HBA.

72% of survey respondents (105 police, local safeguarding children’s boards, health, education, probation, social services, fire and rescue) had received honour-based abuse training. However, 54% of professionals said they did not feel adequately equipped to deal with HBA cases - College of Policing, 2021

An example of an ineffective, and potentially harmful, first-response approach to HBA can be the use of family or community members to mediate. This is highlighted by the case of Shafilea Ahmed, a British-Pakistani girl from Warrington in Cheshire.

Shafilea grew up in Warrington in a family with very strict religious and conservative parents. She was controlled by her parents in many aspects of her daily life, from her appearance and behaviours to her finances. This included her being monitored when she was out of the house by other community members who would report Shafilea’s behaviour to her parents. This form of control was an attempt by her parents to prevent Shafilea from becoming Westernised.

Shafilea ran away from home numerous times and sought help from practitioners in different support services - police, health, education - who repeatedly responded by returning her to her family home and attempting to mediate.

Shafilea’s parents had intentions of an arranged marriage for her. Aged 16, Shafilea drank a bottle of bleach in protest. She then spent eight weeks in hospital being treated for severe damage to her oesophagus, before being returned, again, by support services to live with her parents in the family home.

A few weeks later, Shafilea’s parents murdered her in the family home, forcing her siblings to watch the killing as a lesson, in the name of honour [9]. Shafilea was 17 when she died.

Currently, direct work supporting victims of HBA falls heavily on leading charities which provide emergency accommodation, legal advocacy and other support services. While this work is vital and life-changing for victims, it is critical that practitioners and first responders from a wide range of sectors are equipped to recognise and appropriately respond to HBA - especially given the barriers victims face to reporting.

Critically, there tends to be a “one-chance-rule” with HBA cases [10]. It means there’s likely to be one possible point for support services to intervene. If that moment is missed or if the case is not dealt with correctly, the victim may end up suffering more harm. Services that make the wrong assumptions about a case or lack understanding about the problem before carrying out an intervention can inadvertently increase the threat of harm to the victim.

Perceptions of HBA as a ‘cultural’ problem

A further barrier to an effective and nuanced response to HBA is the extent to which this form of abuse is perceived as a ‘cultural’ problem. Research suggests that this perception can lead to ‘multicultural paralysis’, where the racialisation of HBA, alongside discourse around tradition, leads practitioners to justify non-intervention by saying: “ [it’s] nothing to do with us! It is part of their culture” [11]. Similarly, evidence of ‘race anxiety’ has been highlighted in research on forced marriage, with practitioners saying they have been reluctant to intervene in what they see as ‘cultural matters’, for fear of offending particular communities.

However, Karma Nirvana is clear: “Cultural tradition does not mean Honour Based Abuse is acceptable. Forced marriage is illegal. All forms of domestic abuse are illegal. Cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable.” Research on professionals’ perspectives of HBA in England and Wales suggests that cultural stereotypes negatively affect both professionals’ understanding and interventions. Indeed, recurring links between HBA, violence, ethnicity, religion and immigration have resulted in policy approaches that are both contradictory and ineffective.

“The word ‘honour’ is controversial - some people feel it shouldn’t ever be used in the context of violence against women - but it struck me that the problem was never going away, that there were always accusations of racism if people tried to talk about it, and women were being silenced.”

- Samira Ahmed (journalist and broadcaster who has long been a supporter of projects tackling HBA)

The debate about the term ‘honour’ and the extent to which culture may play a part in HBA simply highlight the lack of research in this area. Crucially, we need to know how perceptions of cultural difference may affect the provision and delivery of support services for victims. Until that happens, this paralysis around culture allows misunderstanding and misconception to breed, which can be fatal when the identification of HBA relies on the confidence of police officers and practitioners to identify the problem.

Is HBA falling behind on the policy agenda?

There is debate on where HBA most appropriately sits in policy frameworks; indeed, HBA is often referenced within domestic abuse (DA) and violence against women and girls (VAWG) initiatives. In recent years there has been a clear focus and commitment across the UK to improve understanding and increase funding to better support victims of DA and of VAWG. However, it is unclear whether the identification of, and response to, HBA has benefitted from such policy progression, given ongoing uncertainty on where HBA fits in conversations of these wider crimes.

The relationship between ‘Honour’-Based Abuse and Violence Against Women and Girls

HBA has been placed in the broader policy framework of Violence Against Women and Girls; the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) strategy in 2015 recognised the significance of gender in HBA and its disproportionate impact on women and girls. Indeed, research shows clear links between HBA, patriarchal values and disproportionate control over acceptable and unacceptable behaviours of women and girls. Looking at current statistics, in 2021, 74% of all forced marriage cases involved female victims. [12]

However, it is important to recognise that HBA victims can be of any gender. Men are also victims of HBA and also need support. Some men are particularly at risk due to factors such as their sexuality or disability, and of the forced marriage cases involving male victims, 57% had mental capacity concerns [13]. There is some risk that viewing HBA too narrowly through the VAWG lens leaves some victims behind.

The relationship between ‘Honour’-Based Abuse and Domestic Abuse

There is a close policy relationship between HBA and domestic abuse. For example, police currently use the same risk assessment ‘DASH’ to assess the risk of domestic abuse and HBA cases. A rationale behind this is that domestic abuse involves similar criminal offence types to HBA and is often committed in domestic settings; much like HBA, DA disproportionately affects women and is often committed under the pretext of patriarchal dominance.

However, in terms of risk, there are key differences in the way HBA is perpetrated. For example, honour can be a motivation for the crime or an aggravating factor; it can also involve multiple perpetrators outside of intimate-partner relationships. It is important that these key differences are understood and factored into risk assessments and safeguarding so that responses are effective for victims.

The importance of a defined policy scope

Clarity on the definition and presentation of HBA, as well as where this form of abuse best sits in current policy frameworks, is vital to ensuring the complexity of HBA is not overlooked. The lack of defined policy scope for HBA is a significant barrier to ensuring a nuanced understanding of the harm and risk associated with this abuse.

It is vital that HBA is moved up the policy agenda. This focus will support greater awareness and better training, which are paramount to ensuring positive and informed engagement with communities. This, in turn, will enable responding agencies and services to identify HBA and have the confidence to take action to protect victims.













[11] Keur 2018 PHD thesis - “‘Call It What You Like, But…This Is Different’: Exploring How Domestic Abuse Practitioners Understand and Address ‘Honour’-Based Violence”




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