15/07/2015 09:49 BST | Updated 15/07/2016 06:59 BST

Why We Need a National Day of Memory

Yesterday marked the first National Day of Memory that remembered Britain's lost women, 'honour' killing victims whose lives were sadly taken by their family.

I have first hand experience of this culture of shame, honour and forced marriage, a life that I escaped.

Growing up, as I went through the British education system I watched my sisters being taken out of the classroom aged 15 one-by-one to marry men they had only met in photographs. Saying 'no' was not an option.

One of my sisters, Robina, suffered a horrific marriage, as with many other victims, she was encouraged to go back to the perpetrator so to not dishonour the family name and reputation. In desperation she committed suicide by setting herself on fire.

It could have so easily been me. I was 14 years old when I was shown the picture of a man I was to learn I was promised to from the age of eight. I pleaded with my mother; 'I was born in Britain', I protested. I was taken out of school and held a prisoner at home until I agreed to the marriage. I complied purely to plan my escape.

At 16, I fled. My family made it clear that I come home and marry whom they say, or I was dead in their eyes. I was made to feel the perpetrator not the victim of abuse and subsequently, predictably, disowned. I have been cast out by my family for over 30 years.

I founded Karma Nirvana after the death of my sister, in the hope that it would give voice to victims affected by forced marriages and honour abuse. The campaign for a Day of Memory marks a milestone.

This day leaves a legacy that will honour the memories of women and men murdered by people that perceived them to be dishonourable. Women who were born and grew up in Britain and yet prevented by their own families from embracing all that Britain stands for: freedom, democracy, independence, ambition and the right to choose who to love and marry.

14th July marks the birthday of Shafilea Ahmed, a beautiful bright young girl in Britain with an ambition to be a barrister. Shafilea suffered honour-based abuses for years, including an attempted forced marriage when her parents drugged her and flew her to Pakistan. The professionals' involved In Shafilea's life - health, teachers, police, social workers - all missed warning signs that Shafilea was a victim of honour based abuse, despite Shafilea at her lowest point also trying to take her life. Tragically her life was taken by her parents at the age of 17. They suffocated her to death in the presence of her siblings for daring to try and live a western lifestyle, bringing 'shame' on her family. 14th July marks what should have been the celebration of her 29th birthday.


Hers is not an isolated case in today's Britain. Since Shafilea's death in 2003 there have been over 141 "honour" murders, in the UK, a figure which we know is a vast under-estimation of the true number. There is still no duty to record murders as linked to honour abuse, and the motivation of the murder being honour-related is often missed when a crime is reported.

The Karma Nirvana national helpline receives more than 700 calls a month. This time of year is the most significant as it marks the summer holidays. Sadly, this summer many young people will be taken abroad and forced into marriages, or have honour crimes committed against them.

Victims of 'Honour' crimes are among the most at-risk women in the UK, but they are also the most isolated and forgotten. There is still very little awareness or understanding of this issue, amongst the public but also amongst the very authorities who meant to protect these vulnerable girls. Ultimately, this means those at-risk are not recognised, those who report are not adequately supported, and those who commit violence in the name of 'honour' do so without fear of retribution.

A National Day of Memory breaks the silences of the many we have yet to reach. It honours those who have been deemed dishonourable and it remembers those victims who their own families tried to erase.

How you can get involved

Central to the launch of the National Day of Memory is a social campaign launched by Leo Burnett London, asks the public to give remembrance to the victims of 'honour' killings, restoring Shafilea's memory following her brutal murder. A 3D printer is building a plastic bust sculpture of Shafilea in response to tweets from the public using the hashtag #RememberShafilea