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.
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.