UPDATE: The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill has passed through the House of Commons!
In an opinion piece for i News, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown explores the cruel and devastating effects of “honor-based abuse” (HBA), including forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
What is “honor-based abuse”?
HBA is the term given to abusive practices to “punish” perceived transgressions against certain expectations and norms, often perpetrated by the familial unit with HBA starting at home.
Coercive control such as family members threatening to kill themselves or to ostracize individuals if they do not obey certain demands is a form of HBA. Violence and physical abuse also constitutes HBA, and in extreme cases this can even escalate into murder.
Banaz Mahmod was forced into marriage at the age of 16 to an older man. She was subjected to horrific violence in her marriage and though she reached out to the police for help on numerous occasions, nothing was done. Banaz was later murdered in a so-called “honor” killing organized by her father and cousins.
Payzee Mahmod, Banaz’s sister, was also coerced into marriage as a teenager but managed to escape.
Under current law, 16 and 17-year olds are able to marry with parental consent, a legal exception that enables family members to coerce children into marriage against their will. Payzee now leads on Freedom United’s campaign calling on the U.K. to ban child marriage for good.
Reaching out for help is complex
Though victims may experience unbearable abuse and fear their lives are in danger, the complex dynamics of HBA mean it’s not always easy for them to seek help or denounce their abusers. For many, seeking support from authorities means they are faced with the prospect of reporting family members and cutting off contact with their community and support network.
Naz Shah, Labour MP for West Bradford, campaigns against harmful and oppressive practices. She was forced into marriage at just 15 years old. After leaving her abusive husband, she faced backlash from her community as a Muslim woman. However, she explains how she is now seeing progress:
“There’s a way to go but I see a quiet shift in attitudes. As an MP, I have influence. But you have to take people with you. It’s a journey. This conditioning goes back centuries. Twenty-five businesses in the area are backing my efforts to fight honour-based oppression. Unimaginable before.”
Alibhai-Brown writes, “Many victims feel betrayed by, and protective of, their families and communities. To report them is, they think, a sin, treachery.” Furthermore, in cases such as that of Banaz’s, victims also risk being ignored by authorities, offered no support and neglected with potentially fatal consequences.
Increase in “honor-based abuse”
HBA cases in the U.K. increased by 81% in the four years from 2016 to 2020 with between 12 to 15 “honor” killings recorded yearly. In reality, the true number could be much higher. Freedom United partners IKWRO and Karma Nirvana both reported a spike in demand for their support services with some victims younger than 10 years old needing help.
At the same time, cases of forced marriage declined over the pandemic. Alibhai-Brown spoke to Anup Manota at Karma Nirvana who explained how pandemic restrictions were affecting instances of forced marriage:
“The pandemic means restrictions on overseas travel, where we see the majority of forced marriages taking place,” she says. “And also on large weddings. Some callers to the helpline even say ‘Covid has saved me’. But they know they will resume. Some victims feel they can’t say no.”
In many cases this is because they have been groomed from an early age. One young Muslim woman told me: “I was five when Mum, aunts, Dad, uncles starting talking about the beautiful wedding I would have if I was a good girl. I would dream of this. Me, dressed like a princess. Guests throwing flowers over me, my prince. I believed them.”
On Friday, the U.K. Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill progressed to the next stage of the parliamentary process. More than 252,000 of you in the Freedom United community have taken action calling on the U.K. to raise the minimum legal age of marriage to 18 in England and Wales. We hope to see this bill progress quickly through parliament and into law to better protect children from parental and familial coercion into marriage.