Spotting and preventing honour-based abuse

Written by: Dawn Jotham | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Honour-based abuse and forced marriage are illegal in the UK and schools are on the front-line when it comes to spotting the signs and making safeguarding interventions. Dawn Jotham advises

Safeguarding is a broad umbrella term that encompasses a range of issues including mental health, substance abuse and bullying, to name a few. One area of safeguarding that has received greater awareness in recent months responds to the on-going threat of honour-based abuse.

However, while there is no question that safeguarding needs to be prioritised in the education system, how can this be expected when there is little understanding regarding these issues and how they can most effectively be mitigated.

Hoping to empower educators to better understand their role in honour-based abuse, I want to break down some of these barriers and provide some practical tips that schools and teachers can adopt in an effort to deliver best practice safeguarding and create a supportive environment for their students.

During our formative childhood years, we are taught a set of behaviours and ideals that are considered honourable – behaviour and ideals that will reflect positively on our family and wider community.

We usually learn these principles through forms of positive and negative feedback. However, some families and communities discipline dishonourable behaviour in more extreme ways.

The term honour-based abuse encompasses a variety of crimes of abuse which predominately, but not exclusively, affect girls and women. This can include assault, imprisonment and murder, but can also manifest in more subtle forms including psychological and emotional abuse that may result in individuals becoming socially withdrawn or isolated.

It is also important to recognise that in most cases of honour-based abuse, the dishonourable behaviour extends beyond more common misbehaviour such as defiance, moodiness and missing curfew – traits that most young people display as they mature.

Honour-based abuse is the result of a broken honour code. It can be the result of a child wearing too much make-up, perceived over-integration with other cultures, not conforming to religious dress, or saying no to a marriage arrangement.

Young people are also most at risk of honour-based abuse as they have been conditioned to understand the concept of honour and how they are expected to behave.

This acute awareness of the threat of honour-based abuse, including forced marriage, physical abuse and harassment, and the consistent messaging that some forms of honour-based abuse, such as forced marriage, are part of their culture or religion, trains young people to accept this as the truth. However, it is important to note that no religion, tradition or culture supports abuse. Honour-based abuse is, at its core, child abuse.

Honour-based abuse in schools

As with many safeguarding issues, the prevalence of honour-based abuse in the UK is alarming. Statistics from Karma Nirvana, a national award-winning honour-based abuse charity, show that it received more than 12,900 reports to its national helpline in 2017.

Furthermore, of these 12,900-plus reports, 70 per cent of callers identified immediate family members as perpetrators – demonstrative of the strong correlation between honour-based abuse and familial beliefs.

Schools play a central role in children’s lives, and the impact is far-reaching. Not only does school provide them with an academic education, it also nurtures their mental and physical wellbeing, and with the formative role education plays in students’ lives it is hard to ignore the responsibility to improve harm prevention and the early identification of vulnerable students.

Furthermore, with the Home Office publishing an open consultation regarding mandatory reporting for forced marriage (November 2018), it is evident that greater strides need to be taken to protect those at risk and that this will remain a key safeguarding issue.

Increasing awareness and providing effective training is the first step for educators. A sound knowledge-base will not only empower teachers and school staff to be able to provide effective support, but in some cases it may also save lives.

As Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana and a survivor of forced marriage and honour-based abuse, has said: “Raising awareness of honour-based abuse and forced marriage in education, particularly in secondary schools, is essential to prevention. Many teenage victims are confused by what their family and community demand of them, and teachers are often unaware of these issues and are nervous about how to manage them.”

Teachers need to feel confident, supported and empowered in order to effectively support students, and training is key. Additionally, due to the strong family ties to honour-based abuse, young people often feel unable to turn to their family or community for support, further emphasising the important role of educators.

Safeguarding against honour-based abuse

Understanding the risks and “causes” of honour-based abuse is the first step of safeguarding against it, but being aware of the warning signs and having the skill-set to practically provide support must follow.

Naturally, these warning signs vary with each case. However, due to the familial link with the majority of honour-based abuse cases, feelings of anxiety, depression and self-harm are often present.

Contextualising honour-based abuse in this manner means that educators are well-placed to provide support as they can leverage their personal insight into students’ character and behaviour to observe subtle shifts in demeanour.

Additional warning signs that teachers and the school community should be aware of include: low attendance and poor punctuality; extended leaves of absence or a failure to return to school; being closely monitored by siblings or cousins at school; refusing to, or having a reluctance to, engage with students and staff; a noticeable decline in academic performance; lack of participation in extra-curricular activities; or more obviously, making a sudden announcement of an engagement to a stranger.

Contextualising these indicators with the student’s personal background is also a useful method of assessing the threat level of honour-based abuse. Understanding this will help determine if students are at risk of honour-based abuse or if something less sinister is at play.

For example, teachers can consider if any of the student’s siblings have been forced to marry, particularly at an early age; if there has been a recent death of a parent; if any siblings have previously self-harmed; or if, in their professional opinion, unreasonable restrictions are in place regarding socialising. If these criteria are met, the likelihood of honour-based abuse is considerable.

While this list of warning signs is extensive, it is also important for teachers and staff to undertake practical efforts to promote good practice and provide effective support for those affected by, and at risk of, honour-based abuse.

Students spend more time at school than in any other environment and teachers are subsequently well placed to leverage their relationships with students to gain important insight.

If teachers are concerned and think a student may be experiencing or at risk of honour-based abuse, they should consider the following steps as a guide:

  • Consider talking to the student to see if you can offer any support.
  • Develop a relationship of trust with the student and establish a discreet method of contact that they are comfortable with and deem safe.
  • Do not approach the student’s family without their permission – this could place them in greater danger.
  • If you have the student’s permission, and are engaging with their family, carefully consider what information is safe and unsafe to disclose. It is important that you have a discussion with the student in advance and understand what the family will perceive to be dishonourable information to share.
  • Do not use a relative, friend or community leader as an interpreter as this can also place the student at higher risk.
  • Contact a confidential national hotline, like Karma Nirvana, which will be able to provide assistance, information and support.

At a more holistic level, teachers can also play a role in re-educating or retraining students’ mindset. Given that children link the threats of honour-based abuse to cultural and religious values, educators can reframe these values, and foster an understanding that cultural acceptance does not equate to tolerating unacceptable behaviour or abuse. Students may experience feelings of guilt for betraying their culture, religion, family or community. However, it is important to remind them that honour-based abuse is a criminal offence and that reporting the abuse is the appropriate thing to do.

Moving forward

Statistics show that honour-based abuse is a pressing safeguarding issue, and as a form of abuse that is often committed with some degree of approval or collusion from family and community members, it is something that requires greater understanding and support in schools. Having an awareness of honour-based abuse, and its prevalence, is essential to its prevention. Understanding the early warning signs, the motives, consequences, and how to take action will subsequently empower teachers and staff with the necessary tools to take action, and will go a long way in helping protect students.

Further information


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