This morning the Home Affairs Select Committee heard evidence from three witnesses (all members of groups which help victims of domestic violence) on the progress, or lack of, made in tackling domestic violence. I went along because some of the evidence was to do with forced marriages and ‘honour’ killings, and one of the witnesses was Jasvinder Sanghera, author of a book on her experiences of forced marriage, and a representative of Karma Nirvana. The other two witnesses were Sandra Horley and Nicola Harwin, representatives of Refuge and Women’s Aid respectively.
Even though the majority of the discussion was to do with domestic violence in the general sense, there were still some important lessons to emerge with respect to forced marriage and ‘honour’ killings specifically. (This is a rather long piece, so there is a summary of the salient points at the bottom. Throughout I refer to ‘victims’, echoing the language of the hearing, even if some of those mentioned were victims in the sense that something was about to happen to them). This is how the hearing progressed:
Sandra Horley and Nicola Harwin largely dealt with this. There is not enough social housing available to re-house victims of domestic violence (DV), which means that victims have to stay in refuges longer. One third of local authorities do not provide DV services, partly because the government guidelines do not require local authorities to ring-fence money and services specifically for DV. The lack of housing is most severe in London, with the Borough of Hounslow being given as the example: despite a population of around 250,000 (and British Asians making up a quarter of that total), there were only 72 properties available for homeless applicants.
Some local authorities define DV victims are ‘intentionally homeless’, which reduces their options with regards to housing. Nor is the number of refuges acceptable, with the number standing only a one third of those suggested by a select committee way back in the 1970s. Local authorities increasing refer DV victims to private housing groups, who sometimes ask for six months’ deposit when these victims have little or nothing. Nicola Harwin pointed out that there were 870 women fleeing forced marriages who were staying in refuge accommodation.
Many forced marriage (FM) victims, or potential victims, still aren’t aware of the services available to them. Jasvinder Sanghera pointed out that FM victims will often first turn to a friend, maybe then to a teacher. The police are considered a last resort. Jasvinder Sanghera argued that one of the greatest problems by voluntary organisations was that their message was not being echoed in schools. Ann Cryer MP remarked on a survey which found that 45% of teenagers believed that it is okay to assault one’s girlfriend.
It was agreed that schools do not build in enough time to talk about these things have teachers necessarily received enough information about DV. Canada was looked to as a model, since it has specialists who come in and give talks in schools. It was suggested that schools combine DV and other subject areas such as bullying. Posters and other public information is key, as it gives quick access to information about services. Essentially, the most important thing was that ‘the buck stopped with someone’, and that this person had a clear role.
One of the concerns about schools was that they were refusing to push DV education for fear of upsetting what they saw as ‘local’ opinion. Jasvinder Sanghera related her experiences with Derby Council. When appearing before them, several councillors ridiculed her for trying to force this issue on schools. A later question established that the offending councillors were British Asian. Some school governors did not want the information posters on FM and ‘honour’ killings for fear of stereotyping Asian pupils. Jasvinder Sanghera was suitably scornful. Martin Salter MP labelled Derby as the test case for how well these type of school initiatives will be accepted.
Salter also pointed out the schools were reluctant to report pupils disappearing for periods of time, because it affects the school’s truancy figures. Jasvinder Sanghera argued that such an attitude was a form of racism, because if a white child went did not turn up for a while there was a vigorous investigation by the school, but with a brown child, less so. Such an attitude seems prevalent in many areas of the state. Home schooling was also a worry, and stricter controls were suggested. Someone raised the point about the possibility that MPs and other public figures might unwittingly help track down those trying to avoid a forced marriage, if the parents merely appeared to be concerned constituents.
Sandra Horley argued that there were a worrying lack of services for non-white victims, as increasing homogenization of services led to a loss of specialist support. There were also worries about the lack of services for those DV victims between 16-18. It is estimated that 10 women a week commit suicide as a result of DV, with many more self-harming. Jasvinder Sanghera noted that British Asians aged 16-24 were particularly at risk, as they had no family support network to turn to, especially as they were more dependent on this network growing up. She also criticised coroners for not doing enough to investigate these suicides fully.
Sandra Horley felt that all DV victims should be classed as ‘intimidated witnesses’. Presently, some are not, as courts forget or do not bother to make the proper application. ‘Intimidated Witnesses’ are entitled to special measures, such as giving evidence via video link, and it was felt that this would help enormously in obtaining special prosecutions. Police protection of DV victims was also a concern, as most victims were protected under the witness protection scheme, but as many of their cases did not go to trial, this protection tended to melt away. Since FM victims are at their most vulnerable just after they have left their home, all agreed that there was a need for a greater emphasis on protection at this stage. Nicola Harwin was worried that too many agencies had access to information about DV victims, which could compromise their safety.
Legislation and volunteers:
DV victims normally prefer to go to voluntary organisations for help, rather than the state. This is because they fear that their children may be taken into care, or that the police may become involved, even if the DV victims do not want them to be. Ann Cryer asked whether forced marriage should be a specific criminal offence, and Jasvinder Sanghera thought so, arguing that it sent a clear message out to the would-be perpetrators. She rejected the notion that it would drive such marriages underground, which would reduce the opportunity for FM victims to seek help: she said that FM was already underground. She felt that legislation was not enough though, and more needed to be done to ensure this attitudes filtered throughout the state apparatus. She favoured raising the marriage age to 21, although Sandra Horley pointed out that a similar marriage age in Denmark had done nothing to reduce force marriages.
Summary of key points and recommendations:
- The stock of housing available for DV victims is too low, and it is difficult for DV victims to obtain housing even if there is a sufficient amount.
- Local authorities need to focus specifically on tackling DV, and this could be achieved by clearer government guidelines.
- Schools are perhaps the key battleground for issues like FM, and the schools need to ensure that they display useful information on it, as well as focus more on domestic violence in class.
- Voluntary organisations are the key to tackling these problems, but need more funding, as well as the need for a closer relationship between them and institutions like the police.
- Cultural relativism cannot be allowed to prevent the useful dissemination of information, nor risk the lives of those in trouble in order to appease a few people.
- Legislation only works if it goes hand in hand with a change in attitude.
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Filed in: 'Honour'-based violence,Current affairs