The fact that most cases of do­mestic abuse and honour-based violence (HBV) are linked to con­trol is borne out by the Middles­brough-based Halo Project. The charity told Eastern Eye that in the last year, about 16,000 victims and agencies called its national hel­pline for advice and guidance. Of these, 65 per cent included HBV and elements of coercive control.

EXCLUSIVE: Commissioner’s concerns over ‘failed’ Asian abuse victims

By Barnie Choudhury

SANDEEP KAUR* never wanted to get married. She was happy with her own family and had a wonderful job in Punjab, India.

But then Manjit Singh* came on the scene, and promised her family he would take care of her, painting a picture of a blissful married life in the UK. That hap­piness lasted all of four days.

“He raped me several times, forcing himself on me, and it got worse the more physically violent he was towards me,” Sandeep said.

“One day, I caught him in bed with his ex, and I knew whatever hope I had of happiness was over. I told one of his relatives, and they told me to go to the police. I couldn’t, I was scared and ashamed.”

Singh’s family, including his former wife and daughters, told Sandeep that she was their serv­ant and she had to do their bid­ding. They beat her daily and con­trolled everything she did. Sand­eep would not go into detail about what happened to her, too distressed to relive her worst moments.

“My whole world ended that day,” Sandeep told Eastern Eye. “They took everything away – my passport, my money and my dig­nity. They knew I couldn’t go back because of the shame and dis­honour, and they used that to control everything I did. I had no escape from this hell.”

But things changed when Sin­gh went to the police to report that Sandeep was “suicidal and had mental health issues”.

Officers turned up to their home in the middle of the night to question her. The next day, the family beat her again, but this time she locked herself in her room and called 999.

“The police saw the bloody tis­sues where I’d been beaten, and they arrested my husband and one of the daughters. They took me to a place of safety, where I’ve been since,” she said.

Dame Vera Baird (Photo: John Stillwell – WPA Pool/Getty Images).

Despite their help, however, the police treated the incident as domestic abuse rather than coer­cive behaviour. This lack of un­derstanding concerns the victims’ commissioner, Dame Vera Baird.

“This territory is very, very worrying indeed, precisely because it doesn’t seem to be advanc­ing as you would think,” she said.

“We should be going along a trajectory that is making it easier for people to complain, easier to get convictions and therefore eas­ier to send out a big signal that this is wrong, is not acceptable, and it will not be condoned. We are not going in that direction. We’re in fact going backwards.”

Only a small proportion of con­trolling or coercive cases ever makes it to court. Despite requests to the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and the CPS, Eastern Eye has been unable to get official figures for arrests for controlling or coercive behav­iour. But the paper understands that just one in five people arrest­ed for this crime is ever prosecut­ed, leading to complaints that the authorities are failing Asian vic­tims of abuse.

“The lack of cross-disciplinary support and a failure of authori­ties to train themselves to under­stand how important that extra cultural pressure is to stay with the coercion, needs to be properly understood,” Dame Vera said.

“It still happens a great deal in Asian communities, and it is against the law. There is no justifi­cation for not investigating and prosecuting. The police and the CPS’s job is to do exactly that.”

In Sandeep’s case, the police put her in touch with Karma Nir­vana, a charity which supports victims of honour-based violence and forced marriage. It was the charity which recognised that Sandeep had experienced con­trolling or coercive behaviour at the hands of her spouse, some­thing that became a crime in 2015.

“The dots aren’t being connect­ed. The authorities don’t see hon­our-based abuse and control and coercive behaviour as intrinsically linked,” said Natasha Rattu, exec­utive director of Karma Nirvana.

“Training is a big factor, so the police and social services won’t be trained to recognise the signs. Vic­tims too are conditioned to accept control as part of their upbring­ing. They don’t have autonomy.”

Since lockdown and until June 19, Karma Nirvana said it has sup­ported 427 victims experiencing coercive control, an increase of four per cent year-on-year.

But that figure is likely to be an underestimate because during lockdown, charities believe victims have faced difficulties seeking help. Although most of its cases (28 per cent) have involved partners, al­most a quarter (24 per cent) of those who contacted the charity said their entire family had taken part in coercive abuse.

Rattu said, “Sometimes the au­thorities will think honour-based abuse is a minority issue. Some­times practitioners will be wary about how they address these is­sues, and this can make it even more hidden. The authorities will call our helplines, and they’re worried about getting it wrong or causing serious offence to minor­ity communities.”

The fact that most cases of do­mestic abuse and honour-based violence (HBV) are linked to con­trol is borne out by the Middles­brough-based Halo Project. The charity told Eastern Eye that in the last year, about 16,000 victims and agencies called its national hel­pline for advice and guidance. Of these, 65 per cent included HBV and elements of coercive control.

Halo has actively supported more than 150 clients on a one-to-one, face-to-face basis who were victims of forced marriage, female genital mutilation or HBV.

“Coercion is such a strong fea­ture in the cases we support, because they [Asian victims] ex­perience many more incidents than their white counterparts be­fore they seek help,” said the Halo Project director Yasmin Khan.

“They seek help at a crisis stage. We don’t get the calls when they are thinking of leaving their abu­sive relationship at home. They’re ringing us because they need to escape for dear life.”

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures, obtained by Eastern Eye, show that in 2019, prosecutors took le­gal action against 585 people, but only 305 were found guilty. The data also shows that 35 Asians were prosecuted and 18 – just over half – were sentenced to an aver­age of 20 months.

“When we deal with controlling and coercive cases at Karma Nir­vana, numbers run into the thou­sands,” said Rattu. “So, 35 is a re­ally underwhelming figure.

“Then when you look at prose­cution figures for honour-based crimes, they have been dropping year-on-year for the past six years, even though numbers are going up. We tie that to evidence gather­ing by the police. If they aren’t confident about links to control­ling and coercive behaviour, they are not looking for the evidence. So you end up with weak cases.”

Once again, the government was unable to point Eastern Eye to figures which show the actual drop in HBV prosecutions in the past six years.

Rattu believes prosecutors also lack confidence in recognising HBV and control and coercive be­haviour cases. So they often settle for a familiar story which a jury can understand, rather than risk prosecuting the real crime.

The MoJ figures also show that south Asian children as young as 15 are also being prosecuted for controlling behaviour.

Dame Vera said, “Younger peo­ple are expected to integrate cul­turally, but younger men appear to be helping to oppress their sib­lings. During lockdown, it must have been absolutely intolerable, and many young people will have simply been victims because they have nowhere to go at all.”

She now wants the authorities to do two things.

“From time to time local authority organisations, like children’s social services, and specialist groups, join up with police opera­tions,” she said. “That needs to be permanent, not pulled together after the event.

“Let’s make clear too that the government must adequately fund each organisation, so they have the strength, the coherence, and they are sustainable.

“They are the front line and can make a big difference.”

This is something that charities such as Karma Nirvana support.

“Victims are often worried that the officer won’t understand them or their culture,” said Rattu. “That is why they reach out to organisa­tions like ours. We need more joined-up working between us and statutory bodies to reach those people. Honour-based abuse is often an afterthought.”

In 2015, the body which assesses the effectiveness of the police, the HMICFRS, (Her Majesty’s In­spectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services) warned that the service “is not sufficiently prepared to protect effectively vic­tims of HBV”.

Three years later, HMICFRS said, “Although awareness is growing, research indicates that these im­portant issues remain largely un­der the radar of most agencies, including the police.”

That same year, 34-year old Jes­sica Patel from Middlesbrough, was strangled in her home by her gay husband. Jessica had faced domestic abuse and control for nine years, with her husband monitoring her calls, and even forbidding her from seeing her dying grandfather. The authorities missed all the signs.

“They missed it because she didn’t make reference to that,” said Khan. “Jessica did receive counselling for IVF, but she never asked for help. But if you’re going to your GP and saying that you’re depressed, the least the GP can say is ‘why are you depressed?’ Then after further investigation, they re­fer you to a counsellor. The first thing they ask you is, ‘why are you upset?’ It’s their job to find more , but we’re not asking the right questions to understand.”

Dr Samara Afzal is a GP at the Limes Medical Centre in Stour­bridge and the Urgent Care Cen­tre at Russell’s Hall Hospital. She works in an inner-city surgery with a lot of deprived patients, many of them south Asian. Dr Afzal believes many family doctors who get to know their patients do spot the signs, and they do refer them to agencies who can help.

“The big problem is patients from Pakistan, Bangladesh or In­dia can’t say anything to their family back home or authorities here because of a fear of shame, stigma and dishonour once the community hears about what’s happened,” she said.

“We give them helplines they can call, but the fear of moving to a place where they have no friends or can’t speak the language does not help. It can take 20 visits be­fore we gain their trust and per­suade them to seek help.

“Only if we think someone’s life is in danger can we break patient client confidentiality and go to the police. Even then, there’s no knowing if the victim will change their story and say everything’s all right.”

Eastern Eye has learned that the government’s ending Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy ended earlier this year, which concerns charities such as Karma Nirvana.

“It’s failing victims of honour-based violence, many of whom are Asian,” said Rattu. “The HMIC inspection team in 2015 found that only three of the 43 police forces were prepared to tackle honour-based abuse. That report had a host of recommendations, yet in 2020 they haven’t been im­plemented when it comes to hon­our-based violence and forced marriage. There is so much reli­ance on third-sector organisa­tions to push this agenda. With all our challenges with resources and capacity, we really want to see leadership from central govern­ment on these issues.”

Eastern Eye asked the govern­ment for confirmation, but it de­clined to comment. Instead, a spokesperson said, “So-called ‘hon­our-based’ abuse is utterly deplor­able, and we are committed to ensuring it has no place in our society. The CPS works closely with the police to secure justice for victims of these horrific crimes and have a joint protocol to make sure investigative teams are using best practice and victims feel sup­ported and protected.

“There is significant work on­going to ensure police are trained to properly identify these crimes.”

Earlier this year, Dame Vera wrote to the home secretary ex­pressing her concern for the fall in prosecutions for honour-based abuse. In a response from the gov­ernment last Wednesday (5), the safeguarding minister, Victoria At­kins said, “I agree that there are areas where more work is needed. Most of the recommendations are now either fully or mostly com­pleted and a range of work has been undertaken as a result.”

But Atkins acknowledged that one crucial recommendation – professional guidance on how the police should deal with HBV and forced marriage – has not yet been drafted. In the letter, the minister said the Forced Marriage Unit will start training sessions for social workers as it does for the police.

Dame Vera is also expected to meet the head of the Public Pro­tection Unit, Shehla Husain, at a later date to discuss her concerns.

She told Eastern Eye, “One of the worries I have about policing is the tendency to think that offic­ers who do domestic abuse can do sexual violence, can do online child sexual exploitation, can do honour-based violence, forced marriage, as well. After all, it’s all about vulnerability and as long as they understand that they can do it. That’s not realistic.

“What we need is specialists to set up this liaison with groups and then to understand how to deal sympa­thetically and be supportive. There’s a lot, frankly, about how we should be tackling this.”

Prosecutors decided not to take any action against Sandeep’s hus­band or daughter, despite the evidence that she had suffered domestic abuse. She remains in a refuge and finally told her family in In­dia what had happened. They believe they could have inter­vened to save the marriage.

“They support me, but I can never go back home,” Sandeep said. “My husband told so many lies in my community which has brought shame on my family. Things I didn’t do, all lies, but they’ve ruined my honour in the eyes of my community.”

 *Names have been changed to protect the identity of the survivor.