Author: nikkigirvan

Child Marriage Ban: More Work Still to be Done

Today marks one year since the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 became law, banning child marriage. 

Reflecting on the 12 months since this momentous milestone, Savera UK CEO and founder, Afrah Qassim, said: “While this is an achievement to be celebrated, and a tool at our disposal to help us protect children from harm and abuse, it is also important to recognise that there is still much work to be done.

“We support IKWRO’s urgent calls for legislative changes in Scotland and Northern Ireland, because a marriage where parental consent is required is open to abuse and is not truly consensual. Until these laws are changed, children will remain at risk.

“We must also look at the wider issue of forced marriage. Forced marriage is inextricable from the issue of child marriage, but you don’t have to be a child to be forced into a marriage. 

“Cases of forced marriage affecting people of all ages are still under-reported, due to people being reluctant to approach authorities, survivors not realising that they are in a forced marriage, and a limited understanding of the issue amongst professionals and statutory and voluntary services.

“Greater training for professionals, mandatory education on the issue in schools, and more funding to support survivors is vital if we are to continue our work and achieve our collective aim of ending forced and child marriage.

“We will continue to work to end all harmful practices, to safeguard and advocate for those at risk, campaign for change and spread awareness among communities.”

Long Read: FGM & Health Professionals: Responsibilities, Challenges and Improving Patient Care

Interaction with frontline healthcare professionals is sometimes the very first-time survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM) become aware of the practice and that they have been subjected to it, due to lack of understanding around the practice or the type of FGM they have had.

For those who are aware they have been through FGM, it is not only vital that healthcare professionals have knowledge of the practice and its health impacts, they also need to have the confidence and willingness to talk openly about it with patients.

However, many health professionals say they lack the confidence to do this.

On Tuesday 6th February, 2024, to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, Savera UK and Oxford Against Cutting, brought together FGM survivors Babs Ceesay and Khatra Paterson, and a group of healthcare professionals for an online discussion about the responsibilities of healthcare professionals in responding to FGM, the challenges they face and how specialist organisations and health professionals can collaborate to  equip health professionals to know how to respond appropriately and help survivors.

Event chair, Aislinn O’Dwyer, Chair of Savera UK’s Board of Directors and East Cheshire NHS Trust, opened the event, which was attended by almost 200 health professionals, with an interactive question: “What one word comes to mind when you think of FGM?”

The resulting word cloud saw words such as ‘pain’, ‘trauma’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘abuse’ as most prominent. In an overview of the practice of FGM and an introduction to the work Savera UK does to help end it, charity CEO and founder, Afrah Qassim touched on some of these themes and highlighted shocking key statistics around FGM: 200 million women and girls have been subjected to the practice globally, with approximately 137,000 women in England and Wales living with its consequences.

Afrah said: “It’s important to know the scale of the issue and to understand that these are just estimates, we don’t know the real figures. These are huge numbers, and it could actually be more. There are so many health implications [of FGM] which is why we need our health professionals to understand their responsibilities and be really equipped to help those at risk or who have already experienced FGM.”

Afrah went on to give an overview of what FGM is and its health implications, as well as its function as a “self-enforcing social convention” in some communities. Despite some connecting the practice with particular cultures or religions, Afrah highlighted that FGM is no part of any culture or religion, but rather a form of abuse and illegal in the UK.

She said: “Sadly many families and individuals believe that if they don’t respect those perceived social conventions, they will suffer social consequences. This is why we need more community engagement, more education and encourage more education to break those beliefs.”

Before introducing FGM survivors Babs Ceesay and Khatra Paterson, Aislinn posed a second question to the audience of health professionals, asking: “In your work/role are you confident to ask patients a question or start the conversation about FGM?”

The poll revealed that while 14 per cent said they were very confident, 53 per cent said they were only fairly confident – with ‘fairly confident’ being a broad measure open to different interpretations – and 33 per cent stated they were not confident at all.

Aislinn said: “This supports our reason for using this event to start that educational process, take the not confident at all to the fairly confident, and at least know where to get help, and the fairly confident to build skills to be able to have an open and honest discussion in a way that both you and the individuals [in your care] are happy with.”

 

FGM survivor perspective: “It is out of love”

 

Reflecting on those confidence levels, Babs Ceesay, a community nurse, FGM survivor ambassador for Savera UK and an Anti-FGM Facilitator for Oxford Against Cutting, introduced her perspective as an FGM survivor. 

Babs said: “Whenever you mention FGM you have that silence in the room for a minute, because people are not confident about asking the questions, or even if they are confident about starting it, they don’t know how to go about it without being judgemental. When I talk about FGM people are like ‘oh that’s cruel, ‘oh that’s bad’ and ‘who would do that to their daughter?’”

Referring to the history of FGM in the UK, she highlighted that a long time before the practice became illegal in the UK in 1985, back in the 1860s, it was undertaken by medical professionals, including Dr Issac Baker Brown, who believed that cutting women resolved certain mental health issues. They believed that this practice was helping women. As knowledge developed, though, it was realised that the procedure was in fact seriously harming women and was subsequently banned – something that has unfortunately not happened in all parts of the world.

Drawing parallels between these 19th century medical professionals, and parents and communities from non-medical backgrounds who continue to believe in the practice, Babs said: “Think about why our parents would do this. It is out of love. It’s not out of hatred or because they didn’t like us. From the culture that I came from, if you don’t go through FGM you cannot fit in in the society, you cannot get married, you cannot do any misstep without being insulted – no parent wants that for their child. So, you need to understand that perspective.

“As a survivor, we don’t need that judgement, we need help. Even if you say, ‘ok I want to help’ but your expression or the words you say are showing me that you are judging me; that you are judging my parents, then I won’t want to listen to you.”

Babs highlighted specifically the harm and upset caused by the raising of safeguarding issues by a midwife at her first appointment pregnancy. The implication being that if she had a girl, that girl would be at risk because Babs had been cut herself.

Babs said: “This was said to me, and it hurts me to think about it. I don’t want anybody to think that I would put my children in the same position that I was in, [to experience] the same issues that I am still suffering from.

“I always tell people who are thinking along these lines, you shouldn’t assume that everyone who has been through FGM knows about FGM.

“The first time that they might know about it is when they go for their cervical screening or when they are pregnant. Either way, it is when they access healthcare. Some will know [about the FGM] from childhood but won’t know about how FGM affects them.

“With that being the case. If someone comes and you notice that this person has been through FGM, and you didn’t say anything to them, you just do your part and let them go, they won’t know what’s in the future for them, they won’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what to expect during childbirth and it was horrible at the end.

“If I’d had that education from the beginning, if someone had said to me ‘oh you’ve been through FGM. What do you know about FGM?’ It’s a simple question that you can ask a survivor – ‘what do you know about FGM?’ Listen to them, allow them to tell you what they know about FGM, and you’d be surprised.

“About 85 – 90 per cent of survivors don’t know anything because in their society they are told that’s the norm – the pain, the suffering, all the problems that come with FGM, they are told that its part of life. It’s not. As healthcare professionals, we need to have these questions in us. We need to think about the perspective of the survivor.”

Babs explained how – as a survivor whose records show she has had FGM – knowing that her healthcare professional knew about FGM, was willing to open the discussion and acknowledge that having something as simple as a cervical smear could be traumatic, would give her reassurance and help her to relax.

She said: “This would help so many people be able to access important healthcare.”

 

FGM: Not Cultural or Tradition

 

Fellow FGM survivor, Khatra Paterson, a business owner with a passion for women’s health and wellbeing, and 32 years’ experience as a nurse, midwife and health visitor, shared how her mum also practiced FGM out of love and a wish to secure her future.

Khatra said: “If my mum had her opportunity again now, today, she would not go through with what she did to me and my sisters. And why is that? That is because of education. I have educated her in the misconceptions and beliefs that go alongside why FGM should be perpetuated.

“Culture is beautiful. I am a British Somali girl, but FGM is not cultural or tradition. It is child abuse and that is how we need to think of it. I noticed in the first word cloud FGM brought the word ‘cultural’ to mind and we need to get away from that.

“I have two boys and when I was with my first child, I was a midwife, and during my booking process all the way through to delivery, no-one had asked me if I had gone through FGM, and it was evident that I had gone through FGM

“I think it’s really important, very early on – particularly at the booking process – that we identify women who have gone thorough FGM, and we shouldn’t look at a particular ethnic group, we should be asking everyone as a matter of course.”

Speaking about the process of change in health services, Khatra recalled her discomfort early in her career when professionals started being required to ask patients about domestic violence and mental health issues.

She said: “Now it’s the norm, and it becomes the norm because we repeat it, it becomes our repertoire, it’s part of our assessment, it’s down on our booking form. FGM equally needs to be in the booking system and on our screening criteria as well.”

Khatra reflected on the results of the poll around confidence addressing FGM in the workplace and posed the question “why are we not feeling so confident about screening women and talking about FGM?”

Potential issues suggested were issues with training, lack of identification of referral pathways or protocols within organisations, inadequate risk assessment tools, an absence of a dedicated FGM lead or multidisciplinary team specifically for FGM, all of which could improve knowledge and confidence of they were in place and prioritised.

Echoing Babs sentiment on the needs of survivors, Khatra said: “We don’t need to be judged, we need to be treated with kindness and sensitivity. Some of these ladies will think it is normal to be this way, so you are going to be unearthing a lot of psychological trauma.”

 

Resources for Professionals

 

After Babs and Khatra’s inspirational contributions to the discussion, Aislinn invited Bryony Kendall, Named GP for safeguarding for NHS Cheshire and Merseyside, and the North West representative to the NHS England National Network of Named GPs, and Dr Sharon Dixon GP Partner, researcher, and Trustee of Oxford Against Cutting, to share both their experiences of managing FGM in a GP setting, and the work that they had undertaken to develop resources for professionals.

Sharon started their presentation by recommending Hibo Wadere’s book, Cut. She referenced an impactful part of Hibo’s story when she first goes to a GP and has a positive experience.

Sharon said: “We – rightly – in health, often reflect on things where we can learn from what didn’t go as well, or that could have been done better. But sometimes it’s nice to learn from things that have been done well.

“She [Hibo] has said for our module for GPs that professionals need to hold their knowledge in one hand and your humanity and compassion in the other, and I find that comforting when we are trying to navigate these quite complicated questions.”

Sharon’s work developed from recent policy changes in FGM. In partnership with advocacy organisations, they have undertaken public and patient involvement work towards setting priorities in research and service development.

In this project, they heard many things including messages that FGM was part of lives, that there was a need for it to be embedded in a positive representation of culture, and that it was only one part of people and did not define them.

The work also highlighted uncertainties about what safe spaces in healthcare looked like, and how they should be maintained, or how you could create trust and safety. Common to the threads of discussion earlier in the event, those involved had also talked about breaking stereotypes and not making assumptions.

Sharon said: “The overarching conclusion was that resources, solutions and change needed to develop from communities upwards to professionals and authority.”

 

Taking a life course approach to FGM

 

The resource for general practice developed by Bryony and Sharon takes a life course approach, considering the potential health needs in different parts of peoples’ lives and how they could be better supported. This not only included areas where resources and services are often focussed, such as antenatal and postnatal care, but also other areas that may be less considered, such as how FGM might affect a child, what it might be like for a teenager starting their period and if that might be triggering, preparation for sex and intimacy and accessing contraception and managing the menopause with FGM, when there is thinning of the genital skin that can aggravate pain and also urine infections.

Speaking of acknowledging the impact of FGM at various life stages, Sharon said: “We often don’t ask because they’re not pregnant, or we’re not seeing them in that way and we’re developing a cohort of people who we’ve been able to support by just thinking about it in that time period.

“There are also some needs that maybe arc across the life course, and you want to be keeping the door open and thinking about how you can be making sure you know local resources and creating opportunities to ask about support, across all life stages. That includes psychological support, psychosexual support to address potential psychosexual and relationship impacts.

“But FGM is many things to many people, everyone’s experience is unique. So, open conversations in exploratory ways, but not making assumptions about the person in front of you.”

Sharon went on to share their Talking about FGM resource, which derived from a series of conversations with community members, advocates and survivors about what they wanted GPs and their practices, as well as other health professionals, to know.

The top thing that they wanted health professionals to know was that they are survivors and not criminals, which reflected Babs’ earlier comments on assumptions that just because she has been cut, does not mean that she would do the same to her child.

They asked professionals to think about where they are having conversations, who else is in the room, and planning and giving due warning in a trauma-informed way, so that they have choice, control and autonomy about how these conversations happen. They also provided advice on approaching physical examinations, including smears, while finally highlighting the importance of the professional responsibility to be knowledgeable, prepared and ready to support.

 

Talking about FGM

 

Speaking of development of the Talking About FGM resource, Bryony said: “This was an amazing piece of work, co-produced from the beginning and with a great mix of lived and learned experience, and we really tried to frame it in a positive way. Rather than saying ‘don’t do this’, saying ‘do this’.”

She then introduced another co-produced resources, the ‘easy read document’, which was developed in response to a lack of easy to read resources on FGM and a sort video on smear guidance from the NHS Futures website.

Finally, Bryony shared the FGM Learning Resource for GPs that she and Sharon co-produced, which among other resources features powerful audio of Hibo reading from her book.

Of the resource, Bryony said: “It is very constructively educational about how to do this, what would you do as a GP thinking about the life course, being aware that you have difficult conversations all the time and these are transferable skills, and if you feel uncomfortable do some reflections and learning to see how you can make it a better experience for the next patient, next time.”

Nicola Biggar, Head of Midwifery, Women’s and Children’s Services for East Cheshire NHS Trust, rounded off the event by turning to look at where health professionals can go from here and what adjustments they can make to their practice.

Nicola said: “For me it’s the next steps – what do we need to do to make a difference now? It’s equipping yourself with information, knowing what kind of conversation we need to be having, so using the information Sharon and Bryony have just provided us with. It’s not rocket science; it’s just having a fresh pair of eyes and reflecting on our own practice and how we can make those changes.

“Not panicking ‘this is a safeguarding’ issue and listening intently, understand, instil confidence, ask how that woman feels, what does she need? And take it from there, don’t panic and be present in that moment.

“It’s knowing that you have that built-up rapport, that they can trust somebody, that they can escalate concerns, they have that confidence in you. It’s about going and checking your practices and policies and pathways, what have you got in place? Is it fit for purpose? Even the referral process with Savera UK, it’s now checking to make sure what we can all do to give that real wrap-around support for those women.”

Nicola’s forward-looking conclusion brought the event to its final interactive element, where attendees were asked to submit a word or few words to summarise the one thing that they would take from the session and make it part of their work.

The words “compassion” and “humanity” were among the most popular responses, along with “confidence”, “don’t make assumptions” and various phases indicating the importance of knowing what resources were available, where help was available and better signposting. The phrase “born of love” also made several appearances, highlighting the impact that the perspective of FGM survivors Khatra and Babs had on the audience.

 

New perspectives on FGM

 

Speaking after the event, Savera UK CEO and founder, Afrah, said: “This event was incredibly powerful and enlightening. From just one session, almost 200 professionals have taken away new perspectives on FGM and a wealth of resources that that will help to inform and improve their practice. There is a clear need for more work and greater support in this area and we look forward to working with our panel, partners and attendees collaboratively through future events and campaigns.”

Savera UK and Oxford Against Cutting will be continuing their work in the field of educating, training and equipping healthcare professionals to respond appropriately and effectively to cases of FGM, with future sessions planned.

 

To find out about these events first, sign up to the Savera UK’s newsletter here and the Oxford Against Cutting newsletter here. You can also find more resources about FGM, HBA and harmful practices on the Savera UK Learning Hub, and Oxford Against Cutting website. Information on Savera’s training is here and Oxford Against Cutting’s workshops can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ambreen Fatima Sheikh: Silenced by family “unsatisfied” by her housework

On Wednesday 14th February 2024 a man and his family were jailed at Leeds Crown Court after his wife, Ambreen Fatima Sheikh, 39, was ‘forced or tricked’ into taking anti-diabetes medication and doused in a corrosive substance leaving her in a vegetative state from which she has no prospect of recovery.

Ambreen was brought to the UK from Pakistan in 2014, at the age of 29, after her marriage to Asgar Sheikh which took place in her home country. 

After arriving at the Sheikh family’s Huddersfield home, the court was told that Ambreen did not leave the house often, and almost never unsupervised. She did not speak much English, have an independent income, or friends or family who lived in the UK.

The court also heard that the family was unsatisfied with her work in the house, and Khalid Sheikh had suggested she should be sent back to Pakistan.

Concerns were raised about her wellbeing in July 2015 when extended family members visited and were told Ambreen was not in or was not able to see them. They reported their concerns to police and a welfare check was carried out. 

Police concluded at the time that: “Ambreen appeared to be well.”

However, the judge said in court: “She spoke little English and no real conversation took place and her father-in-law was outside the door. I find she wouldn’t have been able to express any concerns she had.”

Savera UK CEO and founder, Afrah Qassim, said: “We recognise this case as one that is clearly underpinned by ‘honour’ and a vibrant young woman not meeting the expected ‘norms’ of her husband and in-laws.

“I have read media reports saying that Ambreen’s ‘fate was sealed’ when she was ‘promised’ to the Sheikh family. However, I do not believe that Ambreen’s fate was sealed by her marriage. Her story was completely avoidable. 

“Her life has been snatched away not just by the abuse from her husband and in-laws, but also through opportunities missed by police to help her. 

“When concerns were raised, their welfare check took place in the Sheikh family home, with her father-in-law outside. She spoke little English. How could she possibly be able to express her worries and concerns safely?

“This case – like that of Raneem Oudeh and Khaola Saleem – continues to highlight a shocking lack of knowledge amongst police forces about the issue of ‘honour’-based abuse (HBA), recognising it and responding appropriately.

“There is often only one chance to help someone at risk of HBA, which is why we always advocate for the One Chance Rule. In Ambreen’s case this chance was tragically missed.

“In cases such as Ambreen’s, police and professionals should ensure that independent interpreters are present, and that the check takes place outside the family home and away from other family and community members, and everything possible should be done to keep the individual safe.

“Remembering the simple rules laid out in the One Chance Rule can save lives and protect people from harm. How many more people like Raneem, Khaola and Ambreen do we need to see let down by the systems that should protect them, before the issue of HBA and harmful practices is given the attention and resources that it desperately needs?”

Khalid, Asgar, Shagufa and Shabnam Sheikh were found guilty of causing or allowing a vulnerable adult to suffer serious physical harm, a sentence which carried a maximum tariff of 10 years, but has since been increased to 14 years.

Shagufa, Shabnam and Asgar Sheikh were also found guilty of an act intending to pervert the course of justice. All five defendants were found guilt of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Her husband Asgar Sheikh, 31, and his parents Khalid Sheikh, 55, and Shabnam Sheikh, 53, were jailed for seven years and nine months. Asgar Sheikh’s brother, Sakalayne Sheikh, 25, was given a six-month sentence, suspended for two years, and his sister, Shagufa Sheikh, 29, was given an 18-month sentence, also suspended for two years.

Afrah continued: “While we are pleased that Ambreen’s abusers have been brought to justice, seven years is not sufficient for what she suffered. In Pakistan she was a teacher and in good health. She was described by those who knew her as ‘intelligent, bright and ambitious and someone who would light up the room’ – she should now be living a full, safe and happy life.

“After being poisoned, doctors expected Ambreen to die, but she started breathing on her own. She was a woman with dreams and ambitions that she should be fulfilling today, someone who wanted to live, instead of lying unconscious. Our thoughts are with Ambreen and those who love her and hope that the sentencing brings some peace.”

Image credit: West Yorkshire Police

Practitioners need more “time, resources and training” to address HBA

A review of child protection practices has identified ‘honour’-based abuse (HBA) as an area where social care and safeguarding professionals would benefit from more “time, resources and training”.

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel said senior managers needed to give practitioners these three things to ensure effective safeguarding and to promote “safe professional challenge” within and between agencies, as well as allowing them to gain knowledge, skill and confidence.

‘Honour’-based abuse was identified in the report as an area with skills gaps, along with intrafamilial child sexual abuse and complex mental health issues. 

Speaking of the report Afrah Qassim, CEO and Founder of Savera UK, said: “This report echoes other studies and highlights the need for more time, resources and training in challenging areas such as the one we work in.

“Savera UK was established in 2010 because we knew that ‘honour’-based abuse and harmful practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage were occurring in communities across the UK, but going unidentified or not receiving an appropriate response. 

“This was largely down to a lack of awareness in spotting the signs and understanding of these issues, as well as a reluctance to challenge them when they were identified, for fear of causing offence or being accused of discrimination.

“We have seen progress in the last 14 years through working with frontline professionals to educate and better equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to address these issues and provide those at risk the help they need.

“To stop HBA and harmful practices, it is often necessary to challenge communities, other professionals, local authorities and other agencies. Specific and specialist training is needed to ensure that professionals have the skills and the tools to do this effectively and confidently.

“This report makes it clear that practitioners can only gain these skills with enough time and the right resources and training, so this must be a priority for decision makers and senior leaders in the sector.”

To find out more about Savera UK’s HBA and harmful practice training, click here.

Savera UK Founder and CEO, Afrah Qassim

A Festive Message from our CEO & Founder

Before we go for our festive break, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you – our Savera UK champions – for all your support in 2023.

It has been a year of exciting growth and development for Savera UK, with the implementation of the first year of our three-year strategy, our brand evolution and the launch of our Savera UK Learning Hub. We have expanded our 1-2-1 Direct Intervention services into Cheshire through our new partnership with the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cheshire, John Dwyer, and we have welcomed eight new team members, with one more – our Youth and Education Officer – due to join us in January 2024. We are also recruiting for a Training and Development Manager to lead on our new Training and Education Project, which is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund

The festive break is a time for rest but also for reflection. As I look back, I see that we have achieved a great deal as a team this year, all steps towards our overall mission of ending ‘honour’-based abuse and harmful practices for good. However, we could not do this alone.

We would like to thank our partners, particularly Merseyside PCC and Cheshire PCC, and our funders, including the National Lottery Community Fund, Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales, Smallwood Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation and The Henry Smith Charity. Thank you also to all of our individual donors and those who go out of their ways to fundraise for us. We are grateful to you for believing in us and providing us with the means, resources and platforms to raise awareness, help survivors and those at risk and challenge HBA and harmful practices in all forms.

We would also like to thank our Governance Board for for providing high quality leadership in the development of the organisation, our Advisory Board for their help and guidance, which is always appreciated, and our Savera UK Youth, who work tirelessly and never stop raising their voices to educate people about HBA and harmful practices and how to end them. They fill us with pride and are a constant source of hope for the future. Enormous appreciation also to our team, which is committed, passionate and never gives up on our mission to ensure change does happen and provide an outstanding intervention to our clients, ensuring their safeguarding is a priority 

Finally, we would like to thank and celebrate our brave clients, many of whom have shared their stories and experiences in our campaigns, in the hope that they will help others. Their strength and power is a constant source of inspiration for us. When we see them safe and flourishing in their ‘savera’ – their new beginning – we see what a world without HBA and harmful practices can look like and it pushes us to keep striving for that vision.

Wishing you all a safe, happy and restful festive break – see you in 2024!

Afrah Qassim

CEO & Founder

Savera UK

 

Long Read: Culture, HBA & the Law

On Friday 8th December Savera UK brought together human rights barrister Dexter Dias KC, Savera UK survivor ambassador and IKWRO campaigner, Payzee Mahmod and Kim Johnson MP, for a discussion about culture, ‘honour’-based abuse (HBA) and harmful practices and the law.

The event, delivered in partnership with LJMU and chaired by Dr Hannah Baumeister from LJMU, also included input from Savera UK CEO and Founder, Afrah Qassim, and testimony from one of the charity’s clients.

Following introductions, to start the event, an audio recording of Fato* sharing her story was played to attendees, highlighting the devastating impact of HBA and the work Savera UK does to help survivors and those at risk.

“No Justice”

During her testimony, she said: “I fled my home as I got no justice whatsoever from the police. I fled to the United Kingdom to seek refuge. When I got here, I believed I was safe for some time, but when I found out that my ex-partner intended on coming to the UK and his friends were sharing information about me back to him, I was referred to Savera UK.

“I was really worried no one would believe me. I was worried I would get the same treatment I got from back home where the victim was to blame, but Savera UK listened, and they were there for me, they supported me.”

Fato’s powerful and dignified testimony clearly demonstrated the need for action to help survivors and those at risk of HBA and harmful practices, and led to the central question of the event: How is culture conflated with HBA and what can the law do about it?

This set the stage for keynote speaker, barrister Dexter Dias KC, who practises in international human rights, public law, and crime, and who during the last 30 years he has been involved in some of the biggest legal cases involving murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Providing pro bono work on human rights throughout the world, he was also the principal author of the influential Bar Human Rights report to the Parliamentary Inquiry on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that helped change the law to protect at-risk girls.

Dexter began by talking about his work on this report. He shared the shocking statistic that a girl somewhere in the world is cut (subjected to FGM) every 10 seconds. He also highlighted what he called a “tripartite structure” around FGM – that is organised and implemented by women, subjected on women and girls, for men.

Dexter said: “I asked, ‘What is it we as barristers doing to protect these women from FGM?’ and the answer was nothing.” 

“You Can Change Something”

In response Dexter set up a working group that compared the obligations of this government and of previous administrations and found it in breach of international duties to protect women and children. The report presented a number of recommendations and eventually – alongside the work of brilliant survivors – it helped to change the law to strengthen FGM protection orders, which have since protected 500 girls.

Dexter highlighted that not all the recommendations made in his report had been implemented. He said: “You can’t change everything, but you can change something.”

Moving on to work he had undertaken around sexual abuse in South Asian community, he spoke about the cultural blocks to reporting child sexual abuse in these communities; deference, respect, social standing, and the notion of ‘honour’ and shame.

The challenge was that people did not report such abuse due to ‘social policing’ and for fear that doing so would bring shame on or ‘dishonour’ the family or community, and that there would be repercussions for this, such as being harmed or ostracised from the community.

Dexter explained his provisional hypothesis of how this notion began. He said: “We can track it back four million years, to Central Africa where we all came from. There we developed a sense of belonging and back then if you didn’t belong, you died. It was about survival.”

Through this hypothesis, Dexter explained how this relates to people who believe in harmful practices like FGM – a fear of ostracism and being cast out. He said: “The women organising it have suffered it themselves. They want the best for their children, they won’t be on social service’ radar, but they are subject to social policing. The fact is we want to belong, and while it isn’t life or death now, it’s a social death if you do not conform.”

So, what is the answer to preventing this harm and these abuses of human rights? Dexter said: “The answer isn’t: ‘these are evil people, and we need to lock them all up’. No, what we needed to do was intervene upstream with tools like FGM protection orders.”

Rounding off his speech, of these practices and beliefs, Dexter said: “We have constructed them, and we can deconstruct them.”

HBA & Culture Panel

Following Dexter’s keynote, Dr Hannah Baumesiter, Law Lecturer at LJMU, welcomed panellists Kim Johnson, MP for Liverpool Riverside and the first Black MP for the city, who also sits on the Women & Equalities Committee, and led the committee’s inquiry into so-called ‘honour’-based abuse, and Payzee Mahmod, who raises awareness and campaigns to end harmful practices including child marriage, FGM, virginity testing and hymenoplasty.

Payzee draws on her own lived experiences as a survivor and the loss of her sister Banaz, in a so-called ‘honour’ killing. After being forced into a child marriage aged 16, Payzee lead the three-year-long campaign to change the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18, in England and Wales (Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, 2023).

The discussion began once again with the question of culture, HBA and harmful practices and how and why they are conflated.

Kim Johnson said: “Culture is used as a way and means of burying the head in the sand, as something for people to hide behind. It was common when I was growing up in L8 for lots of girls to go off for weeks and months and everyone knew what was happening, but nothing was done.

“Police, nurses, teachers all have a responsibility to call it out, but there is a lack of understanding and training, which should be integral in public sector services.”

Payzee added: “When culture was used as a reason for what was happening to me and my sisters, it normalised it. It meant my teachers and doctors didn’t question when at 16 I told them I was pregnant and didn’t want to have this baby because I was married. But culture can never be an excuse for abuse.”

Dexter spoke of the challenges he faced in his work around FGM in Africa. He said: “People asked why are you consumed by this? What happens to women in sub-Saharan Africa has nothing to do with you. Who are you to intervene in their cultures and traditions? The answer is that it is a matter of human rights.

“When you speak to girls in sub-Saharan Africa and say, ‘you have a right to bodily integrity’ and ‘you have a right NOT to be cut’ you can see a light bulb go on. When people ask, ‘what can the law do?’ I say that we can tell people what the law is, so that they know.”

“We need to be embedded in communities”

This observation turned the discussion to education. Afrah shared how Savera UK was established after a school turned to her for advice in helping girls whose families were talking about marriage and wanted help. Afrah said: “The school believed it was talking about cultural issues and it didn’t have appropriate knowledge. They were scared to say the wrong thing or to cause offence.”

The panel agreed that this is why education is so important, not just for young people and people in general, but also to train the educators to respond appropriately to these issues. The panel also agreed that education and even challenging communities without fear was also important.

Kim said: “We need to be embedded in communities, raising awareness, and challenging things, asking ‘is this right?’. We need to address the fear of reprisals in the community.”

Discussing the challenge of social policing, Afrah agreed: “We need advocates embedded in those communities where these issues are prevalent. Some individuals want to report these issues, but fear of being found out and the consequences prevents them. They are accused of forgetting their culture and identity.

“We need to empower those individuals in those communities. If we’re going to end this, we need to educate communities. If we don’t start with the roots of the issue nothing will change.”

As the panel drew to a close, discussion turned to what has been achieved. Legislation changes such as the change in the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18 in England and Wales and the strengthening of the law through Forced Marriage and FGM protection orders we highlighted as positive steps.

Payzee also added: “Going into the Kurdish and Iranian community I have seen progress and cultural shifts, we are slowly seeing change. When I started speaking up, I had such backlash, they said I was crazy. Now they reach out to me for help. Change doesn’t always happen as fast as we want to but there are changes.”

While it was agreed that legislation was vital, it was also agreed that legislation alone could not end these issues.

Dexter said: “Lawyers overestimate how important the law is. You cannot prosecute FGM into extinction. You have to meet people where they are.”

Speaking of his work with survivor groups he highlighted that not enough people know about the legislation that exists, which is why reaching people who might not be in digital spaces or access the places where legislation is discussed or promoted. He said: ”It actually is important to have a law. So people can say ‘it isn’t just me, the law says it’”.

Data and Funding

The final point of discussion was around the challenges of data and funding, which are often interlinked. During the first years of its existence, Savera UK struggled to convince local authorities that HBA and harmful practices were an issue in Liverpool because there was no data to evidence it. With no data, securing funding was virtually impossible.

As ‘hidden’ practices and ones that statutory and voluntary frontline services are not always equipped or trained to recognise, and with statutory definition for HBA or central system for data to be recorded in, data remains a significant challenge for organisations, services and individuals working to end HBA and harmful practices.

Kim said: “The inquiry into so-called ‘honour’-based abuse highlighted data as vital and having a statutory definition of HBA is important for recording accurate data. Unfortunately, this recommendation was not taken on by the Government, along with others that were made. We need to apply more pressure for those recommendations to be taken on.”

On a final note, Afrah added: “We need these issues to be made part of the mainstream, so that everyone is aware of them. We need better funding and the issue of HBA and harmful practices needs not to be dismissed like it was dismissed in the Domestic Abuse Act.”

Culture, HBA and the Law was delivered in partnership with LJMU, who kindly provided our venue. We will be delivering more events on this topic in the new year, to stay up to date on all news from Savera UK and be the first to hear about upcoming events, please sign up to our newsletter here. 

*False name used to protect client identity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Savera UK secures more than £400k from National Lottery

The National Lottery Community Fund has granted Savera UK £419,615 over four years to develop a training and education project that will inform thousands of people about ‘honour’-based abuse and harmful practices.

The project “A world without HBA & harmful practices” aims to reach, teach and engage as many people as possible across Merseyside, Cheshire and beyond about HBA and harmful practices. This includes the general public, those in professional agencies and also communities.

It aims to equip them with the information and tools needed to better recognise and respond to survivors or those at risk of HBA and harmful practices, while also improving outcomes for survivors and those at risk.

A Training and Education Manager will be recruited to lead the four-year project and a dedicated Youth and Education Officer, will engage with schools and other educational establishments to reach a wide range of young people. This intends not just to inform them about HBA and harmful practices, but to also recruit them to the Savera UK Youth programme and the Youth Advisory Board, to help them deliver campaigns and peer-to-peer education within the project.

Afrah Qassim, CEO and founder of Savera UK, said: “We are so excited to receive this funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and grateful for its support. This project has been an ambition for Savera UK for a very long time, so to finally be able to bring it to life is incredible.

“We want people to learn and understand more about HBA and harmful practices, so they are better equipped to recognise and challenge them, and to provide a better response for those at risk. This funding will give us the resource and capacity to properly meet this demand and educate people so we can move closer to a world without these issues.”

Hundreds Support March to End HBA and Harmful Practices

On Saturday 25th November 2023, hundreds joined Savera UK and Zonta UK in their mission to end HBA and harmful practices, as the charities launched their “No Excuse for Abuse” campaign with a march in Liverpool City Centre.

The campaign will run throughout the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence and abuse (25 Nov – 10 Dec) and will include fundraising activities, a panel event discussing Culture, HBA and the Law, and awareness sessions to introduce the public to the issues of HBA and harmful practices.

The event began with drumming from Katumba followed by speeches from Afrah Qassim from Savera UK and Dianne Jeanes from Zonta UK, highlighting the reasons behind the campaign and partnership, which is now in its fourth year. 

Before the march began, led by Afrah, Dianne, Savera UK Survivor Ambassador, Khatra Paterson and Merseyside’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Emily Spurrell, Savera UK Young Ambassador Malcolm, and team member Macy, read the stories of five ‘honour’ killing victims from the UK, in line with the theme of the first day of the charity’s 16 days of activism toolkit – remembrance.

“We March for Them”

Arash Ghorbani-Zarin was a 19-year-old student at Oxford Brookes University. During his studies he fell for 20-year-old Manna Begum, they began dating and a year later she fell pregnant. Arash showed friends a scan of the unborn child and took a job in Toys ‘R’ Us in order to support Manna and the baby. However, her father has an arranged marriage planned for her. Their relationship and her pregnancy angered him. He and his two sons ambushed Arash in his car, stabbing him 46 times. The unborn child was aborted after his murder. 

After two years in an abusive forced marriage Banaz Mahmod entered a relationship with Rahmat Suleimani. They were in love but their relationship was against her family’s wishes. Banaz’s uncle devised a plan to kill them both which she overheard and reported to the police, but police didn’t respond quickly enough. Two days after Rahmat suffered an attempted kidnap, Banaz was subjected to two hours of rape and torture before being strangled to death. Ten years after her murder Rahmat tragically took his own life.

Laura Wilson, aged 16, was in a relationship with Ashtiaq Ashgar but he made her keep it a secret because he knew his family would be unhappy he was dating a white girl. When Laura found out he was seeing other girls, she had a fling with Ashgar’s friend and fell pregnant. After the birth of the baby Laura and Ashgar rekindled their relationship, but he insisted it remained a secret. After Laura told the families of both Ashgar and the father of her baby about their relationships, Ashgar lured her to a canal where he stabbed her to death.

A 16-year-old girl that attended school in Fulham, Heshu Yones began a relationship with a fellow pupil without her family’s knowledge. She lived a double life, putting make-up on after leaving the house and having friends lie about her whereabouts so she could spend time with her boyfriend. But eventually Heshu’s father received an anonymous letter that their “community” was aware she had a boyfriend. After months of physical abuse, her father killed her by stabbing her multiple times and cutting her throat, in the bathroom where she had barricaded herself.

Samia Shahid was always described as a bubbly and funny girl. Her family arranged for her to marry her cousin abroad. The marriage went ahead, but after she returned to England, she fell in love with Syed Kazim. She divorced her husband and married Syed, but her family did not approve of these actions. Despite being involved in a dispute with her family over her choices, when she was told her father was critically ill, she travelled abroad alone to see him, staying in touch with Syed throughout her trip. The day before her departure date, the constant stream of messages to her husband suddenly stopped. He was informed by her family that she had died of ‘natural causes’ however, an autopsy found she had been subjected to rape and strangulation.

The One Chance Rule

A group of more than 200 marched through Liverpool City Centre, led by Movema’s Liver Bird and Chinese Phoenix, on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, carrying banners and placards. At the marches halfway point, survivor stories were shared by Savera UK survivor ambassador Khatra Paterson, who told her story of being subjected to FGM at the age of 10, and team members Eve and Alex read stories from Savera UK’s own clients. 

After marching to Mann Island to join Merseyside PCC’s event and vigil, Savera UK team member Merfat led the group in the One Chance Rule pledge, before Savera UK Youth Advisory Board Member, Ayo, read the poem, Let Women be Free by Juliana Mohamed Noor.

To find out more about other Savera UK events taking place during the 16 Days of Activism, visit: https://www.saverauk.co.uk/current-campaigns/no-excuse-for-abuse/

Image: Andrew AB Photography

St George's Hall lit up orange for the last Orange the World campaign

Landmarks in Liverpool City Region and Cheshire illuminate orange to support global call to end gender-based violence

Buildings and landmarks across the Liverpool City Region and Cheshire will be illuminated bright orange on Saturday 25th November, as part of an international campaign aimed at ending gender-based violence, with the iconic St John’s Beacon joining the campaign for the first time.

The colour orange, used in the global “Orange the World” campaign, is intended to be a symbol of hope for a brighter future, free of violence or abuse, a message supported by Savera UK’s “No Excuse for Abuse” campaign.

Other city region landmarks that will illuminate orange include Liverpool Town Hall, St George’s Hall, World Museum Liverpool, Merseyside Police Headquarters, the Greystone Footbridge (Knowsley), the Mersey Gateway Bridge (Halton), Wallasey Town Hall (Wirral) and the Steve Prescott Bridge (St Helens).

A number of Cheshire landmarks will also light orange, in a campaign supported by PCC John Dwyer, Savera UK, Chester Soroptimists, Cheshire West and Chester Council and other organisations committed to addressing gender-based violence and abuse in the area. Cheshire buildings illuminating include Chester Town Hall, Eastgate Clock and Newgate in Chester, Wyvern House in Winsford, and Ellesmere Port Library.

Through its partnership with Zonta UK, the campaign will also see Defra buildings across the UK illuminate in support of the initiative.

Dianne Jeans, from Zonta UK, said: “Zonta UK is delighted to be working again with Savera UK to amplify our voices during this campaign, and commend Defra for participating in the 16 days of activism through lighting their buildings, becoming a White Ribbon organisation and promoting workplace discussion of gender-based violence and abuse.”

The illumination will take place on the same day that charities Savera UK and Zonta UK will march through Liverpool city centre from Williamson Square to call for an end to ‘honour’-based abuse (HBA), harmful practices and all forms of gender-based abuse, after Savera UK has seen an increase of almost 6% in new referrals into its service and a continuing growth in demand.

The event will start at 1:45pm with a drumming performance from Katumba and some short speeches before the march will begin, heading through town with Movema’s Sankofa and Liver Birds performing to celebrate the beauty of culture.

There will be a further stop along the route when Savera UK survivor ambassador, Khatra Paterson, will share her story, and readings from Savera UK’s own clients will also be shared.

​​Savera UK is a leading national organisation that helps survivors and those at risk of HBA and harmful practices, which include forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and conversion therapy. Zonta UK is part of Zonta International, a global organisation that stands for women’s rights and advocates for equality, education and an end to child marriage and gender-based violence.

Each year, the 25th of November marks the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the start of the United Nation’s “Orange the World” campaign and annual 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign.

Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner, Emily Spurrell said: “This is such an important campaign, and I am glad to see it continue and grow year on year. It’s essential we do everything possible to increase awareness to those that may be unaware of what ‘honour-based’ abuse is or even more importantly, reach out to victims and potential victims to give them the courage to speak out and seek support.
 
“We know, there may only be one chance, to reach out and save a person from a lifetime of abuse. Marching through the city, I hope we can increase understanding through shared stories and visual impact and bring some light to those who have suffered and who may still be suffering.   
 
“I am proud to work closely with Savera UK through my Victim Care Merseyside service to provide support for anyone who has been affected, ensuring they receive the advice, care and help they need. If you or someone you know is a victim of ‘honour-based’ abuse, you can receive support from Savera UK.”  

Chief Superintendent Ngaire Waine, Head of Investigations Protecting Vulnerable People, Merseyside Police said: “We work closely with Savera UK to raise awareness of so-called ‘honour’-based abuse within the wider public, as well as reaching out to those who are more familiar with this.

“We want to empower victims to seek support whether that is through us and our dedicated team of specially trained officers, a charity or a friend or family member that you trust. There is still a level of under-reporting in relation to this crime and we must curb this trend. ‘Honour’-based violence is not a taboo subject – by raising awareness, we can encourage others to spot the signs, protect the vulnerable and help us bring offenders to justice.

“If you are a victim of this horrible crime, or know someone at risk, please speak up and we’ll help – report either directly to us @MerPolCC, by calling 101 or contact @CrimestoppersUK anonymously. You can also contact Savera UK at www.saverauk.co.uk.”

The #16Days campaign ends on Sunday 10th December, Human Rights Day, when a number of the participating landmarks are expected to light up orange once again in a show of solidarity and support. Warrington Town Hall will also illuminate Orange on 10th December.

Image by Jennifer Bruce