Practice blog

'Honour' and violence against women – what's in a name?

Dr Moira Dustin is a Research Fellow in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently working on the European Research Council project SOGICA - Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Claims of Asylum, assessing how fairly asylum claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity are treated across Europe. She has previously worked at the Equality and Diversity Forum, the Refugee Council, and as a freelance sub-editor. She has a PhD in Gender Studies from the London School of Economics where she is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE)

For an audio version of this blog, visit our Soundcloud profile or scroll to the bottom of the page.

When talking about preventing gender-based violence, language matters more than it should: the gravity of violence against women and girls is trivialised by references to cat-calling, slut-shaming and pussy-grabbing. And calling pornographic magazines ‘lads’ mags’ suggests anyone who objects to the routine objectification of women is a killjoy who doesn’t understand it’s just a bit of fun.

In the case of so-called honour crimes, there is a particular problem of language for campaigners, service-providers and policy-makers. The word ‘honour’ has mainly positive connotations. By repeating it, there is a danger of reinforcing rather than undermining the idea that there is an honour attached to some forms of violence.

Following this line of thinking, a Private Members Bill in January – subsequently withdrawn – suggested banning the use of the term ‘honour killing’ in official publications. As the Bill’s proponent, Nusrat Ghani MP, pointed out ‘language matters’. She went on to argue that

The use of the term “honour” to describe a violent criminal act—sometimes committed against a man, but more often against a woman—can be explained only as a means of self-justification for the perpetrator. It diminishes the victim and provides a convenient excuse for what in our society we should accurately and simply call murder, rape, abuse or enslavement.[i]

The problem with ‘honour’ has been widely recognised: by the CPS (‘There is no, and cannot be, honour or justification for abusing the human rights of others.’); by the United Nations (‘I do not even wish to use the phrase ‘honour killing’: there is not the faintest vestige of honour in killing a woman in this way’); and by women’s organisations (‘As we at Southall Black Sisters have proclaimed in our campaign slogans: There is no honour in such violence, only shame’).[ii] 

So why did 66 experts and survivors write to Nusrat Ghani opposing her Bill? Precisely because they recognise that language matters. They point out that progress in ending ‘honour’ based violence has been made by using this particular term, and developing expertise and support around it.[iii] Moreover, the wording is used globally, including in international instruments that can usefully be cited in the UK. Perhaps most importantly, the term is understood in the communities where such violence occurs, where it is ‘owned’ by survivors.

The letter writers – representing organisations ranging from the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, to Southall Black Sisters, to End Violence Against Women – convincingly show why the unhelpful positive connotations of the word ‘honour’ are less important than the role it has in organising people and policies in a particular area of gender-based violence that primarily affects women from minority ethnic communities in the UK.

I have a different concern with the use of ‘honour’ but which is also related to how violence is labelled, which is that the term is not always applied with sufficient specificity. The label ‘honour’ has been applied to a range of crimes including forced marriage and female genital mutilation in a way that separate them out from ‘mainstream’ violence against (white) women and implies they are a different phenomenon with different motives. Forced marriage, ‘honour’ crimes and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are routinely grouped together as a single strategy or area of policy when often the only common feature of these abuses is that the victims are from a minority ethnic community.[iv]

Similarly troubling is the conflation of ‘honour’ violence with terrorism in a way that confuses strategies on extremism action to protect women and girls: in her first Prime Minister’s Questions last July, Theresa May said:

"Extremism does take many forms. That is why, in the Government’s counter-extremism strategy, we are looking very widely across the breadth of issues of extremism, including tackling the root causes of some practices within communities, such as so-called honour-based violence. I absolutely agree with her that there is absolutely no honour in so-called honour-based violence. It is violence and a criminal act, pure and simple.[v]"

It may appear petty-minded to criticise the Government for finally acknowledging and trying to stop violence against minoritised women and girls. But by attributing a range of different offenses to a single motive – the culture of shame and honour among minorities in the UK – the real and more complex causes are disguised and both perpetrators and victims are deprived of agency.

A better model does exist and there has been much success in recent decades in calling violence against women what it is – a human rights abuse. This approach has been led by women’s organisations, including those mentioned above, working separately, but also coming together to inform policy and hold government and parliamentarians accountable.

Returning to the problem of terminology, one must work with the tools that are to hand. In the short term, the dilemma will in all likelihood continue to be resolved by the distancing mechanism of using quotation marks – referring to so-called ‘honour’ killings and ‘honour’ based violence. In the longer term, it is to be hoped the question will become redundant along with this particular form of violence against women.


[iv] The HM Inspectorate of Constabulary website states that ‘HBV [Honour-based violence] incidents and crimes include specific types of offence, such as forced marriage (FM) and female genital mutilation (FGM), and acts which have long been criminalised, such as assault, rape and murder. We use HBV to refer to the full range of incidents and crimes which perpetrators carry out under the guise of maintaining or protecting perceived ‘honour’.

"It's helped me build a good rapport with my clients": reflections on Responding to Young People training

Domestic abuse can affect people of any age and background, and supporting young people experiencing domestic abuse brings a unique set of challenges. That’s why at SafeLives we run a training course specifically designed for professionals working with young people. Helena Cartlidge completed our Responding to Young People training course in February 2016, and SafeLives Communications Officer Ruth caught up with her to find out how it’s making a difference to her practice.

Ruth: Hi Helena, thank you for speaking with me. Could you start by telling me a bit about your background?

Helena: I worked for a domestic abuse team in Stoke-on-Trent, taking on various roles: working in a refuge as children's worker, delivering the Freedom programme to victims and the recovery toolkit and community outreach support. Mostly I was a one to one support worker with children and young people from 11-19 who had witnessed domestic abuse.

When the legal definition of domestic abuse changed to lower the age to 16, there was a gap in our service for young people in their own abusive relationships – which is why I decided to take SafeLives young people training.  

What were the main things you took away from the training, and how is it helping you in your day to day work?

The biggest thing I took a way was knowledge about the development of the adolescent, and how it affects their thinking and choices. The resources on how to engage with an adolescent were really useful  and have helped me to build a good rapport with my clients.

Also useful was the training on gangs, the criminal justice system, safety planning, digital and online abuse, risk assessment and sexual abuse.

It was really useful to go into detailed safety planning and risk assessment, as you never know when this might be needed with a client. Also useful was how to respond to a crisis while maintaining your own safety.

The opportunity to discuss good practice with the other people on the course was invaluable. Collette and Alice were excellent facilitators and we had some good discussions during the training days.

What have you been up to since you finished the course? 

After 7 years in the domestic abuse field, I felt ready to use my skills in another area. I’m now a Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) support worker, working with 11-18 year olds at risk of sexual exploitation. My SafeLives training has been vital when engaging with young people. While I am enjoying my current role, the work around domestic abuse will always be something I remain passionate about.

Finally, thinking about what you learned on the course as well as your own experiences with clients, what do you think are some important things for professionals to bear in mind when working with young people?

I think it’s really important to empathise with young people as much as possible and see things from an adolescent point of view. You need to show understanding and find the right balance of support. Establish a good rapport by finding out their likes and strengths. When it comes to confidentiality and safeguarding, make it clear you are not an authority figure and the support you’re offering is confidential.

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Katie's Story

The following story is one of several accounts shared with us by a group of young people; all have experienced domestic abuse and have been supported by the Ypvas working at the Young People Violence Advisor (Ypva) Service in South Tyneside. They have shared their individual stories to raise awareness of domestic abuse in the hope that victims and services will be inspired to make change. For an audio version of this blog, visit our Soundcloud profile or scroll to the bottom of the page.

*All names have been changed to protect identities

I was 15 when I met him, he was two years older than me. At first I wasn’t interested in him but the more I got to know him the closer and nicer he got. It was like he was different from the other boys, he showed me that he knew how to treat a lady in the way no other boy would. He seemed caring and nice and loving so I started to get feelings for him like he had for me. At that point it took me nearly 4 months to know him, I felt the same and when I asked him he obviously said yes. We were both happy and he started to show me what an actual relationship was like and, he showed me how stuff was meant to go in relationships. He kept on proving to me that he was a nice boy to the point I didn’t want to stay at home no more. I wanted to move out from my mams even though I was only 15 so I did, but my mam was not happy in the slightest. This was when stuff was starting to go different between us but I couldn’t see it as I was madly in love with him. I didn’t think there was anything wrong by it as he told me my mam was wrong and that I wasn’t too young to move out.  He also said that he would be there to look after me and I needed to start growing up and learning to look after myself, as one day I would have to leave my mams so I listened to him. Soon enough me and my mam fell out over it. 

Living with him was good for the first month and then he started drinking constantly, like every day constantly having parties with loads of girls and hardly no boys, I knew one of the girls and soon enough he started going on differently, different personality, not like the nice person at the start. He started calling me names when there was loads of people there, making me out to be the bad person and him being the victim so they would start joining in. Then he apologised saying it was the drink talking, not him. So obviously I forgave him every time but it kept on happening, then it started to get worse. I found out one night when I was asleep, and he was drunk again, that he had cheated on me. When I asked him he said it wasn’t him, it was the drink, and that he had stayed with her because he didn’t want to wake me up. I forgave him, then he started throwing me outside at midnight, calling me names like slag, slut and worthless. When I got threw out I had no coat, no nothing but he’d never let me back in until he felt like it, even if I begged him. So obviously every time he came to get me I’d be freezing and say to him, why do you keep doing this to me. He would say stuff like oh babe, baby you know I don’t mean it, even though I’d be in tears, freezing, angry and confused, asking myself why he was like this in front of his friends and always when he was drunk. I hated it, but I still loved him and I didn’t know what he was doing to me was wrong.

Then it got worse, he started getting aggressive and abusive, not just mentally but physically. He started hurting me, he hit me and forced me to lie to my family for money so he could buy drink and drugs.  If I didn’t lie or get money he’d hit me, kick off with me and chuck me out of the house.  When I got paid he would take all of my money off me and say I control your money, not you.  Even though I knew it went on drink or clubbing I was too scared to say no so I always gave in, this went on for three years and I would not leave him because I was scared. Every time I did leave he’d drag me back in or stalk me and so I was trapped until one day I had the courage to leave him. But even when I got rid of him I still kept on getting phone calls and stalked and threatened. 

Then it got to the point that he started saying he was going to kill himself and the blood would be on my hands to make me go back. Every time I did he’d be sitting there with his drink and loads of pills in his hand, so I would take them off him and leave but he would always make me feel like the bad person, that it was my fault he’s this way, that I’m a coward, a big slut and a nobody every time. Then one night I went back one last time to find he had a friend with him. They were both drunk like usual so I went to leave. He said no, stay and have sex with me. They both kept on going on about it saying please come on, repeating it all the time until I gave in and done it because I was scared as they wouldn’t let me out and what they would have they would have done if I hadn’t. 

After I ran out and he started chucking stuff at me. After getting his keys he ran out following me to the point I had to hide until he left.  I got home to tell my mam everything to the point she got me help with the YPVA Service that help young people and other young girls who have went through what I have went through and get you back on track. Now look at me, no more B*, he’s got a Restraining Order.  I’m no longer scared of all of the time because of their help.  Now I’m getting better and recovering slowly.  Because of their help I understand what to look out for now I’m with their service.

For more survivor stories, insights and resources on supporting young people experiencing domestic abuse, visit our Spotlight page.

Chantelle's Story

Chantelle is a survivor, writer and musician. She bravely got in touch with us to share her story, in the hope that it would help others. She has also written a poem about her experiences. For an audio version of this blog, visit our Soundcloud profile or scroll to the bottom of the page.

My name is Chantelle Hall, I am 18 years old. When I was 15 I got into a relationship that would change my life. The first few months were perfect, we went out places, we met each others family, we were still young so we just had a good time. One day I was on the phone to a male friend, and my partner decided that it wasn't okay for me to do that. That was the first time he hit me. After that it kind of just becomes a blur.

He started checking my texts, my calls, my emails, the comments and likes on my social media. Sometimes he even took my phone away from me. If I was out with friends, he'd call me every ten minutes expecting a detailed list of the people I was with, where we were and what we doing – on many occasions that wasnt enough and I'd have to send a picture as proof. He started to control my every move, and eventually I had no control over my life anymore. At sixteen I lost the choice in wether or not we had sex, it became a need for him rather than a want and even when I didn't want to, he found a way to get it.

He isolated me from a lot of my friends and sometimes even my family. Anything I said or did that he didn't like would result in a kick, or a punch, or a chunk of my hair being pulled out. He repeatedly cheated on me and if I ever tried to leave him, he'd threaten to kill himself or harm himself in some way. I was completely trapped. But I loved him, and I didn't want anyone to think he was a bad person – because to him it was my fault anyway, and he reminded me of that everyday, until I eventually believed it too. I became very depressed, and started self harming. I lost interest in school, in my music, in everything. 

Just after New Years, I decided enough was enough and found the courage to walk away. It was in January 2016 that I caught him with another girl, and when I asked him why he told me that I wasn't enough anymore, and that I should just kill myself. My friend was with me and she took my phone and blocked his number, deleted him from everything and told me that now was my chance to regain my freedom, and that I should run and never look back. So I did just that. 

I moved away from the area and got myself a fresh start. I got my friends back, my family back and I'm working on building my self confidence. I started writing as a way of processing what was happening to me, and now it's just a part of my daily routine. I found that maybe taking some of these negative thoughts and turning them into something positive could encourage a lot of other victims of domestic violence to stand up and fight back. 

Just because he tells you he's asking because he cares, or that he only got mad because he loves you, it doesn't mean it's true. That isn't love, it's torture, and nobody deserves that. 

For more survivor stories, resources and insight around supporting young people experiencing domestic abuse, visit our Spotlight page.

"I've gained the experience and ability to support my clients better": reflections on SafeLives Idva training

Independent domestic violence advisors (Idvas) are an advocate for victims of domestic abuse. They act as a single point of contact, supporting their clients to be safe from abuse and helping them to rebuild their lives. Over the last ten years at SafeLives we’ve trained over 2,100 Idvas, helping them to gain professional recognition for the vital work they do. SafeLives Communications Officer Ruth Davies caught up with Sharon Griffiths, who has just completed her Foundation Idva course.

Ruth: Hi Sharon, congratulations on completing your course! Could you tell me a bit about how you started working as an Idva?

Sharon: I’ve been working with victims of domestic abuse for about ten years. I started as a volunteer with Victim Support, working with victims of domestic and sexual abuse. I then became the Women’s Safety Worker at the probation service for two years, and I joined Plymouth Domestic Abuse Service as an Idva in April 2014.

What were the main things you took away from the training, and how do you think it will help you to support your clients?

It’s definitely made me more confident in my job – especially when I’m in a multi-agency setting and I have to professionally challenge to get the best outcome for my client. I also feel a lot more comfortable in advising clients about criminal and civil court procedures.

Does having an accredited qualification make a difference to the way you feel about your job?

To be honest, I never thought that having a qualification would matter to me. But now I’ve found that it’s increased my confidence. I’ve gained the experience and ability to support my clients better, and I’m confident that my input will make a difference to maintain their safety and empower them to move forward.

Now you’ve completed the training, what do you think you’ll do next?

I’m keen to share what I’ve learned with my colleagues, and often feed information back to them from the training materials. Depending on securing the funding, I’d love to do the Isva course – and I’m interested in the possibility of achieving the Diploma, although of course it depends on the funding.

Thanks so much for talking to us Sharon!

Thank you.


If you’d like to find out more about our courses for Idvas and other professionals, visit our training pages.