Reflections of an Idva on ‘honour’-based abuse

Tina Ciccotto is a Senior Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (Idva) at Victim Support in the borough of Tower Hamlets in London. Tina was trained as an Idva, Isva and most recently also completed the Safelives Service Manager training. Here Tina reflects on the role of managing cases in relation to ‘honour’- based violence which are quite prevalent in the borough. Tina also delivers training and raises awareness to professionals within the borough. For an audio version of this blog, scroll to the bottom of the page.

Tower Hamlets is the sixth smallest of the 32 London boroughs and yet it is the fourth most densely populated. We are extremely diverse with the single largest ethnic group being Bangladeshi (32%), bringing it up to 46% when considering other Asian populations. In fact, Tower Hamlets has the largest Bangladeshi population in England (Ethnicity in Tower Hamlets, Analysis of 2011 Census data, Tower Hamlets Council). Tower Hamlets consistently has one of the highest rates of reported domestic abuse across London (Metropolitan Police Crime Figures), and ‘honour’-based violence, including forced marriage, accounts for a quarter of our referrals.

When I started working as an Idva for Victim Support, I was aware that pride/honour was important to people in all societies. However, it was not long before the word “izzat” (Hindi, Urdu and Bengali refers to the concept of honour) became apparent in our daily work and I soon realised that it was often linked to family members or acquaintances who mistakenly believe someone has brought shame to their family or community by doing something that is not in keeping with the traditional beliefs of their culture. This honour came with a price: violence and abuse. There are many factors we have come across in our service which are viewed as dishonourable and may be considered as bringing shame and dishonour on the individual, their family and their community such as:

  • Defying parental authority
  • ‘Westernised’ dress, behaviour and attitude
  • Pre-marital sex or extra-marital affairs
  • The existence of a “non-approved” relationship
  • Rejecting a forced or arranged marriage
  • Leaving a partner
  • Seeking divorce particularly when a dowry may be large.
  • Rumours and gossip.

The repercussions of this perceived damaged ‘honour’ are both extreme and diverse: ostracising from one’s family and community, kidnapping and house ‘arrest’, including restriction of movement within and outside the home and excessive restrictions on home life (not allowed a phone, to use internet or develop friendships outside of wider family / friends circle etc.) are just a few. For many, escaping these abusive situations seem hopeless and their only sense of release or control is through self-harm or suicide. And there is always the looming threat of an honour killing which thankfully we have not experienced lately in our borough.

Recently I supported a woman named Sabina*. Following a miscarriage, which led to escalated abuse, she separated from her husband after years of domestic violence and abuse from both her husband and in-laws. She fled to her sister in London.  Living in the UK on a spousal visa, with her residency dependent on her relationship to her husband, and with no recourse to public funds, she felt hopeless to escape the abuse. Returning to her home country was not an option, as she feared that she would face the repercussions for her actions (i.e. ‘honour’ based violence). Being divorced was a subject of taboo and was frowned upon within her community and culture.She felt she was the ‘‘black sheep’’ of the family and considered a ‘’whore’’.  She explained some relatives had disowned her, and the family members she was in contact with were indifferent to the abuse she had experienced and they blamed her for it. As her husband had made threats that the police would deport her, Sabina was fearful of the supposed repercussions she may face if she reported the abuse to the police (i.e. being deported and facing further violence from her community).

For many of the clients that we support, their experiences of domestic abuse are compounded by the pressure to protect the honour of themselves, their family and their community, which in turn makes escaping even more dangerous and unlikely. The risk of further harm from one’s husband or partner, is often multiplied by the threat of violence or abuse from both their own family (both in the UK and ‘back home’), their marital family and the wider community.  To add to this, the practical consequences of fleeing such as immigration (no recourse to public funds), language and cultural barriers, all make escaping their family and community even more treacherous and overwhelming.

With over a quarter of our clients at risk of ‘honour’ – based violence, as Tower Hamlets Idvas, it is a central aspect of our role to understand and respond to these greater risks linked to ‘honour’. We provide our clients with the emotional support, encouragement, and reassurance to give them the courage to take action despite the multitude of barriers. We reassure them that despite their circumstances, support is available and we can explore all their needs and options.Some of the added risks and fears that we must understand and respond to include:

  • No recourse to public funds, spousal visas and Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC),
  • The risk of further violence and abuse if she must return to her home country
  • A fear or mistrust of the police (especially with uncertain immigration status)
  • A fear of the repercussions of going to the police, both at home and in the wider community
  • Refuge options and availability for BME women and those with ‘no recourse to public funds’.
  • Unavailability of public benefits to flee (for food, refuge or even legal aid)
  • The wider community and family backlash (including the threat of violence and abuse) for leaving a relationship, even after they’ve fled the relationship and abuse.

By effectively understanding and responding to these wider issues linked to not only domestic violence and abuse, but ‘honour- based violence, we ensure that the women and men we support find a safe place they can call home and are given the opportunity to rebuild their life and gain back their independence and strength.

Reflections of an Idva on 'honour'-based abuse

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An Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (Idva) is a specialist professional who works with a victim of domestic abuse to develop a trusting relationship. They can help a victim with everything they need to become safe and rebuild their life. Find out more about the life-changing impact of the idva.