Thursday 25 April 2013

Sexuality and Honour Abuse: Challenges in Reproductive Healthcare

Honour violence is a complex system of abuse that has attracted a lot of media attention over the last few years, not least because of the deeply vicious nature of murders carried out by family and close members of the victims’ community. The tragic stories of women like Shafilea Ahmed, Banaz Mahmoud and many others  are at the extreme end of a scale of abuse unique in character and quite different to domestic violence or murder, mainly because of the level of community collusion involved.
In these communities a family’s status is judged by its ability to control its women and children, and must ensure their adherence to a strict code of behaviour. Swift punishment is expected for any deviance from this. Physical violence, stalking, forced marriage, rape, incest, imprisonment, domestic/sexual exploitation and forced immigration have all been carried out in the name of ‘honour’, although these and other abuses such as genital mutilation can occur without any such ‘breach of behaviour’.
Reproductive health practitioners face a number of specific challenges in supporting victims of honour abuse, as the range of apparent offences that can provoke it mostly involve expressions of sexuality or discovery of sexual activity. There is a particularly high risk of unplanned pregnancy due to lack of contraceptive awareness or unwillingness to use contraception that may interfere with menstrual cycles.  In abusive households periods may be monitored by female members, most often the mother, to deduce readiness for marriage and to ensure that the hymen, a mistaken indicator of virginity, is kept intact. It can also safely be said that the life of most victims who present with pregnancy at a reproductive health clinic is at risk, and this should never be underestimated. Women have either become pregnant as a result of the abuse, or they have been sexually active in a ‘forbidden’ relationship i.e. with someone from the ‘wrong’ race or even the ‘wrong’ caste.
Mental health issues may also impair victims’ capacity to make important decisions about their health. As this study demonstrates, depression, self-harm and suicide can all affect South Asian women 2-3 times more than the national average, and stigma around mental illness in this community is well documented.  Where sexual abuse and incest occur, it is most often with the knowledge of other family members who are complicit in the abuse due to active participation, inaction and/or fear of reprisal. Seeking help for any kind of personal family issue is heavily frowned upon and can constitute a loss of honour in itself.
Although measures are beginning to be taken to address the problem, there continues to be a deep lack of general awareness around the issue. If you would like to find out more about honour abuse, organisations like Karma Nirvana, the Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) and the Southall Black Sisters have a range of useful resources available. Information can also be found online at HBV Awareness and in publications such as Rana Husseini’s Murder in the Name of Honour’ and Lynne Welchman/Sara Hossain’s Honour: Crimes, Paradigms and Violence against Women’.

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