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Change in  Pakistani law marks progress in the prosecution of 'honour killings'

Date:19 DEC 2016
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Fatimah Farag, a solicitor at The International Family Law Group LLP,  and David Hodson, a partner and highly experienced international family law  expert at The International Family  Law Group LLP look at a recent change in legislation in Pakistan on 'honour-based'  violence and reflect on the impact in this country and worldwide, together with  other necessary changes.

We rarely come across terms such as 'shame' and 'honour' in modern-day society - in fact, to most they are archaic. Yet these concepts sadly remain engrained in some cultures to the extent that they are used to justify abuse and killing, often founded upon misguided interpretations of religious principles. Most shockingly these crimes are commonly being perpetrated by family members against their own relatives. The issue has been on the agenda of organisations like the United Nations for several years. Initiatives like the UNiTE To Save Women campaign managed by UN Women have been set up to address the belief system at the heart of 'honour-based' abuse through education and intervention on an international scale.

Governments have also now started introducing legislation aimed at undermining its practice through punishment and deterrence. The Pakistani government is the latest to takes steps to introduce such legislation. In October, Pakistan’s two houses of Parliament unanimously voted in October to pass hugely significant legislation closing a loophole which has long undermined the prosecution of “honour-based” killings.

So-called 'honour-based abuse' refers to domestic violence perpetrated against spouses or other family members for purportedly bringing shame on the honour of the family. It is an issue often seen in sub-continental Asian and Arab cultures where traditional gender roles and values are prized above almost everything else. Often but not exclusively seen in the context of Islamic families, where religious principles are used as the basis for these practices, decisions such as when and to whom a girl should get married, or whether to pursue ambitions of going into further education or employment, can conflict with tradition. Where this conflict arises, the girl can then be seen as having brought shame on the family by tarnishing its reputation. This is then used as to justify violence, abuse, and forced marriage.

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 Across the world, there are huge numbers of reported cases of 'honour-based' abuse where members of sub-continental Asian and Arab communities, who perhaps perceive Western values as posing a threat to more traditional cultural principles, seek to take action to avoid their own families being influenced. Of these cases, most shocking are ones which have resulted in the killing of the women involved. The Honour Based Violence Awareness Network, an international organisation which works to advance the understanding of such crimes through research, education and training, estimates that there are 5,000 international killings per year, 1,000 of these taking place in Pakistan and, most chillingly of all for those of us in the UK, 12 of these taking place in our own country. These numbers are thought to be conservative, based only upon killings which have actually been reported therefore excluding other deaths which have either gone undetected or instead reported as suicide or accidents.

Over the years, cases have come to light where “honour-based” abuse has played a central role and demonstrated that the problem is certainly not only confined to the countries from which the practice originates. Shafilea Ahmed, for example, was a UK-born Pakistani Muslim teenager who was killed by her parents at the age of 17 after resisting their plans for her to have an arranged marriage in Pakistan. The UK’s stance on such abuse is strong – when reported, such acts are prosecuted as crimes, whether they have taken the form of domestic violence, forced marriage or murder. In Shafilea’s case, her parents were convicted of her murder and imprisoned for 25 years each. In other cases, family members have been convicted as accessories to such crimes.

'Honour-based' violence is often reported particularly in the context of Pakistani culture. The problem in Pakistan has until now been compounded by laws preventing the successful prosecution of perpetrators by allowing the (most commonly, male) perpetrator to walk free if the victim’s family has 'forgiven' him. Given that 'honour-based' violence occurs most frequently within the family setting, this law exposed a loop-hole which resulted in 'honour-based' abuse often going unpunished. Significantly in both a social and legal sense, Pakistan enacted the Anti-Honour Killing Laws (Criminal Amendment Bill) 2015 on 6 October 2016 in a joint sitting of the two houses of Parliament, which closes this loop-hole, marking an important shift towards the acknowledgement of 'honour-based' killing as the serious crime it is. Perpetrators will now be prevented from benefitting from a complete pardon for their actions. Instead, a mandatory life sentence will be imposed, with any family pardons operating only to take the death penalty off the table. A second piece of legislation, the Anti-Rape Laws (Criminal Amendment Bill) 2015, was also enacted alongside the legislation addressing “honour-based” killing, with the two pieces of legislation emphasising a shift towards the wholesale recognition and criminalisation of gender-based abuse in Pakistan. 

So, what else can be done to help tackle 'honour-based' abuse, in the UK and overseas?  The answer clearly and crucially rests on victims feeling safe to report the abuse to appropriate authorities in the first place, or these authorities otherwise detecting cases of abuse where the victims have not yet come forward by knowing what indicators to look for in potential victims. Complaints must be taken seriously and investigated fully. When a woman comes forward to report abuse at home, she risks ostracism from her family and community, as well having to deal with her own feelings of guilt or shame for taking this course of action. There must therefore be due appreciation of the ongoing effect this trauma will have had. There must be effective systems in place to support victims once they have reported abuse to ensure that their physical and psychological needs are met at a time when they are likely to be at their most vulnerable. This includes, for example, implementing proper procedures that protect witnesses when coming forward, during any criminal investigation, and during any subsequent trials, for example when giving evidence. There must also be effective support following such trials to help affected women come to terms with what has happened, through counselling and life coaching, as well as financial provision to help these women get their lives back on track. Specialist training for police officers, care workers and judges involved in these cases is also essential.

Possibly even more important than effectively detecting and prosecuting 'honour-based' abuse is preventing it from taking place altogether. Education lies at the heart of tackling this issue. Numerous campaigners and groups working to eradicate 'honour-based' violence, including Nazir Afzal OBE, Karma Nirvana, and Kiran Support Services, have highlighted the importance of children being taught to understand and respect human and gender rights from a young age. In doing so, it is hoped that they will grow up with well-informed views of their own as to how women in their communities should be treated, which will hopefully also challenge the fundamental traditions underpinning 'honour-based' violence and weaken the practice at its very roots.

The proper labelling of 'honour-based' abuse is also very important. There have been calls to label it a 'terror crime' or a crime of control, detaching it from any notions of religion or race and instead recognising it outright as a serious crime that should be investigated as such without tiptoeing around issues of race and religion. These suggestions have been raised in the fear that linking these crimes to honour somehow normalises them and prevents them from being dealt with properly. There are also concerns that the label of 'honour-based' abuse is a loosely-used term, which does not properly recognise the dynamics of violence, gender inequality and control which underpin it. Others however argue that it is rightly deemed as 'honour-based' abuse, with this name highlighting that it is linked with outdated concepts of 'honour' and 'shame' based on questionable traditions, rather than making any suggestion that the killing is 'honourable' in itself.

Aside from how we should rightly term 'honour-based' abuse, it is a practice which must be taken seriously, and the spotlight in the international arena now being shone on the issue indicates that it actually is.  The latest legislation passed by Pakistan’s government signifies a strong political move towards recognising and substantively criminalising honour-based abuse in Pakistan for the first time. It will likely have long-term positive implications for communities in Pakistan, and in the wider world. Whilst we must tolerate and respect the rich diversity afforded to each other by different cultures, we should not be afraid of addressing and challenging cultural practices which have no place in modern-day society by any reasonable individual’s standards, whether they are Muslim or otherwise. By encouraging a wholesale change in attitude towards honour-based abuse and opening the topic for discussion beyond those communities which are being affected alone, victims may be more willing to speak up about their experiences. This change in attitude could prove pivotal in preventing these crimes from being perpetrated in the future.