There's No 'Honour' in Child Abuse

03/08/2012 13:26 BST | Updated 03/10/2012 10:12 BST

Bright, beautiful and ambitious, Warrington teenager Shafilea Ahmed wanted to be a barrister. The only chance she got to appear in court was as a murder victim.

When the 17-year-old Shafilea went missing on 11 September 2003, it was her teachers who reported her missing seven days later. Her parents, Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed, did not bother to do so. Because they killed her.

In February 2004, Shafilea's corpse was found on the banks of a river in the Lake District, 70 miles away from Warrington. The coroner ruled that she had been victim of a "very vile murder". Following the inquest, Shafilea's parents attempted unsuccessfully to have the verdict of unlawful killing overturned and replaced by an open verdict, arguing that the coroner's view was 'biased' because the family were Asian.

The eldest of five children, Shafilea was mercilessly abused by her parents because she wanted the same basic freedoms enjoyed by any young person, the right to dress how she wanted, choose the friends she wanted, and have a part time job to earn some money to go out and enjoy herself.

Shafilea's parents disapproved of their daughter's 'westernised' ways to the point of murder. Her death has been tagged an "honour crime".

This term, used to describe incidents like the recent shocking footage of a 22 year old woman being publicly executed in Afghanistan, reportedly because two men could not decide who should 'have' her, is disputed by many, who believe that giving certain crimes a cultural label is to minimise them.

Put simply, child abuse is child abuse, regardless of the ethnic origin of the abuser.

Social workers are used to being dismissed as woolly liberals, but they are not the only professionals who face accusations of allowing political correctness to blind them to reality.

Everyone who seeks to protect children from harm, whether working in health, education, social care or law enforcement, must not allow the quite proper defence of diversity - including faith, culture and ethnicity - to ever be confused with condoning oppressive and abusive behaviour

Shafilea Ahmed was killed because her parents were bullies and murderers. The fact that her refusal to follow their rules and expectations about her behaviour provoked their violence should not negate the terrible tragedy of her murder, or any murder.

I grew up in Warrington, a large industrial town between Manchester and Liverpool, with a strong tradition of rugby league and a big pub culture. I have fond memories of my teenage years there during the 'Madchester' years, and can only feel sad that in contrast to my own upbringing, Shafilea spent her life under virtual house arrest.

It has been reported that Shafilea's parents ran the house like a prison, insisting on strict traditional standards of behaviour for Muslim girls. They were affronted and ashamed by Shafilea's attempts at freedom, forcing her to live a double life.

Shafilea's sister Alesha, whose evidence led to her parents' eventual conviction told Chester crown court that they had grown up in a "restrictive" Pakistani culture and that western culture was "more free".

Joanne Code, her teacher at Great Sankey School told the court that Shafilea had worn a 'stunning' blue dress to a dance, but had to change into baggy clothes before being picked up by her father. On another occasion, her sister said that her parents were furious that Shafilea had forgotten her coat, and so was standing in the street waiting to be picked up after her shift at a call centre, dressed only in a T-shirt, which they considered to be immodest. They also disapproved of her friends, who were mainly white girls.

Warrington has a 97.9% white population, only 0.8% of residents in the town are of Asian origin. Of course Shafilea's friends were going to be mainly white.

Cheshire police, aware of previous incident shortly before her disappearance when Shafilea had drunk bleach rather than be forced into marriage with a cousin in Pakistan, suspected the parents' involvement from the start.

In a public appeal for information, Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati read poems written by Shafilea, found by police when they searched her bedroom. They detail her despair at being trapped between these two cultures, saying: "Desire to live is burning, my stomach is turning, but all they think about is honour". The lyrics go on: "I was like a normal teenage kid, didn't ask too much, I just wanted to fit in. My culture was different, but my family ignored."

Honour crimes in England are on the rise. Recent research by the Iranian And Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO) has found that more than 2,800 incidents of 'honour' based violence were reported to police across the UK last year.

Despite these growing numbers, IKWRO have stated that police officers, teachers and social workers still do not understand the problem and do not know enough about how to protect women and girls attacked or threatened by family members.

Forced marriage is closely linked to honour-based violence and honour killings, and comes under the government's definition of domestic violence. David Cameron has recently mooted plans to criminalise forced marriages, which has met with a mixed response, with critics claiming that it risks forcing victims underground.

More importantly, domestic violence resources are still being cut. Southall Black Sisters, an organisation which produced a number of guides with the Home Office to support women at risk of domestic violence, faces losing half its staff.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is supporting IKRO's call for a national strategy to tackle honour crime, involving the type of guidance already present in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's The Right to Choose: multi-agency statutory guidance for dealing with forced marriage. The Association also believes that it is important to make sure social workers have easy access to information on 'honour' crime, and that it is not marginalised from mainstream documents.

Such guidance is currently under threat of being reduced, part of the government's pledge to cut "red tape" - a helpful move for professionals swamped by bureaucracy, but accompanied by the law of unintended consequences, as some crucial insights fall off the system.

The guidance describes honour based violence and forced marriage as human rights abuses and advises professionals to remind victims of their rights: "they have the right to choose who they marry, when and where, and the right to make decisions about their lives".

It also points out that the victim's family should not be informed that the victim has sought help as "this is likely to increase the risk", and that mediation as a response to forced marriage can be extremely dangerous, and can place someone at risk of further emotional and physical abuse. There have been cases of victims being murdered by their families during mediation.

BASW believes that professionals need more guidance on honour based violence, not less, and that organisations who are trying to help women affected by honour based violence should not be having their funding cut.

People were aware of Shafilea's problems, but she resisted involving the authorities with her family, as is common to abuse cases across all ethnic groups. Her teacher, Joanne Code, did her best to help Shafilea, ringing her at home and arranging temporary accommodation for her.

Mrs Code said Shafilea was 'adamant' she did not want social services to become involved, but the situation was "monitored". She told the court: 'I was concerned that if she said too much it might make life difficult for her. It was a very direct question I needed to ask her, I asked whether or not I needed to be worried about her welfare - which she replied "Yes".'

Although Mrs Code knew that the situation with her parents remained unresolved, she was powerless to stop Shafilea from returning home when she said she wished for reconciliation.

BASW professional officer Nushra Mansuri is familiar with the problems facing professionals who try to intervene with incidents of violence and abuse involving family members, but sees engaging with resistant families as being part and parcel of social work practice.

Ms Mansuri is clear that professionals must have the confidence to deal with sensitive issues such as faith, race and culture while undertaking their responsibilities to protect children.

She points out that many people in Shafilea's life attempted to help her, but that if a teenager is adamant that they do not want to involve the authorities, it doesn't necessarily follow that agencies should withdraw from being involved.

Ms Mansuri says:

"Yes, be respectful of people's different cultures when you speak to them, but a suspected child abuse case involving Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic families should not be treated any differently from any other, the best interests of the child must remain the focus.

"Many families, regardless of their ethnicity or cultural background, are reluctant to engage with the authorities, but professionals must be persistent when there are concerns about a child's welfare, and not allow themselves to be fobbed off. There is clear guidance on this issue, and it must be followed."

Shafilea Ahmed now lies in a grave in a Warrington cemetery. She would have been 26 years old on 14 July. We should not forget her.