Leila has just finished first year at university.  Like other young women her age, she wants to be a success and to live her own life.  She’s bright and has lots of friends.  She wants to be happy.

Leila is a survivor of forced marriage.   When she was 17 her father said that she had to marry an older man.  When she refused, he accused her of dishonouring her family.  Her mother begged her to go along with the marriage, and her father began to lock her in the house, and threatened to take her out of school.  Leila became worried and called IKWRO.

Last year IKWRO provided in depth support to 148 women and girls at risk of forced marriage and “honour” based violence.  A forced marriage is a marriage where one or both parties do not, or are not able to, consent.  Forced marriage isn’t a crime in the UK but since 2008 Forced Marriage Protection Orders have been used to protect those at risk.  An order can be initiated by the police or a local authority and bans a person’s family from certain conduct such as coming near them, preventing them from going out or taking them overseas.

Unfortunately, in a recent report the Home Affairs Committee found that protection orders were frequently not followed up on, so it was unclear whether they were really protecting people.  The Committee also reported that awareness of forced marriage and the protections available was still too low, especially in schools.  Recently a teacher in a London school told IKWRO that while she had seen many cases of forced marriage she had never called the government Forced Marriage Unit.  When asked what help she gave pupils, she said she simply offered “a shoulder to cry on”.

It isn’t just teachers who need to improve their response to forced marriage.  Social workers, police, GPs and other professionals all have a role to play, and many are keen to learn.  IKWRO is currently providing training on forced marriage in advance of the school summer holidays.  Already the demand has been huge.

But organisations like IKWRO can’t reach all the professionals who need training or all the young people who are at risk.  It’s up to the government to make sure that local authorities, schools, parents and young people are getting the message loud and clear that forced marriage is an abuse of human rights and will not be tolerated.

One way to get the message out would be to make forced marriage a criminal offence, as the Home Affairs Committee have recommended.  IKWRO believes that if forced marriage became a crime this would act as a deterrent to parents and families, would give potential victims a better understanding of their rights and would help to ensure that the authorities take the issue seriously. 

At the same time, some people including the solicitor Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE who is a specialist in forced marriage fear that young people will be less likely to report forced marriage if it means their parents could be dragged through the criminal courts and end up in prison

IKWRO supports the committee’s recommendations to make forced marriage a crime, but we believe that forced marriage protection orders should also remain in place.  We believe that this will give people who don’t want to go down the criminal route a means to protect themselves, whilst also sending out a stronger signal that forced marriage is wrong.

Our blog has now moved onto our main website.  Check it out here, and find IKWRO on twitter and facebook


Asylum Aid recently exposed very high rates of refusal for women seeking asylum in the UK. Russell Hargrave has written a guest blog to tell us more:

The typical image of a political refugee is of a single male, fleeing conflict in which he has become embroiled at home. But in 2009 more than 7000 women applied for asylum in the UK. 

The factors which lead women to seek asylum can be very different from their male counterparts. Women face persecution for their political activities, but also for their gender. They may come from societies where violation of women’s rights is the norm, and may be fleeing ‘honour’ killing, rape, forced marriage or FGM to be carried out against them or their daughters. 

Asylum Aid’s report on the quality of decisions when women seek asylum – Unsustainable – was conducted against a background of poor decision-making generally. In 2009, almost 30% of Home Office decisions to refuse asylum were reversed on appeal by an independent immigration judge. That is, one in three of the people denied protection when they turned to the UK for help was then found by a judge to need that protection after all. The human cost is enormous, as victims of torture and rape struggle through the labyrinthine appeals process. The economic cost of unnecessary appeals and ongoing support payments is also vast.

Unsustainable vividly illustrates one area in which decision-making has gone very badly wrong. 87% of the applications we looked at were refused, nearly always because doubt was cast on the credibility of the woman’s claim; yet half of these refusals were then reversed by a judge on appeal, and the woman’s credibility was accepted in each case. 

So why does this happen? Worryingly the disbelief confronting so many women in the UK – for example as survivors of rape or violence approaching the police or before the courts – almost certainly permeates the asylum system. 

However, Unsustainable also showed multiple flaws in the ways that individual applications were considered. Some decision-makers displayed a shockingly limited understanding of women’s rights (one woman was told that she was not a victim of domestic violence as her husband had only once tried to hit her), and the evidence used to support decisions was sometimes extraordinarily flimsy (one refusal letter ignored objective information about the woman’s home country, and referred instead to an article from a gossip site). 

Above all, though, the provisions in the 1951 Refugee Convention that offer international protection to women as members of a Particular Social Group (PSG) at proven risk of persecution were consistently overlooked. The Home Office made no reference to PSG in the majority of cases based solely on gender-related persecution. The means to protect women exist, but were normally ignored.

Recently the Home Office has recognised the importance of getting asylum decisions right first time, albeit on cost grounds more than any other. Now they need to act. One way to maintain pressure on them is to endorse the Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum, a set of goals around which more than two hundred charities and community groups have campaigned. 

You can find out more about the Charter and the Unsustainable report on our website. You can also watch a short film about Asylum Aid’s Every Single Woman campaign.

Our blog has now moved onto our main website.  Check it out here, and find IKWRO on twitter and facebook

This week we’re responding to a consultation by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on charging women who retract allegations of domestic violence or rape with perversion of the course of justice. 

There are no statistics on how many people in the UK falsely report rape or domestic violence each year.  When Baroness Stern released her review of rape reporting last March, she highlighted the lack of accurate data on false rape allegations as a concern.  The Telegraph, in the spirit of irresponsible journalism, reported this as “as many as one in ten allegations could be false”. 

Much less has been said about women who drop allegations which are actually true.  Yet we know from our work with survivors of domestic violence and rape that this happens often.  There are many reasons for this.  Women may feel uncertain about how they will cope with going to court or may have been treated poorly by the police.  They may also be afraid of further violence or of losing their children or their home. 

Last year a woman was convicted after she retracted rape allegations against her husband under severe pressure from his family.  She was sentenced to eight months in prison.  Her husband- who had allegedly raped her five times – took custody of their kids. 

In response to the outcry surrounding that case, the CPS recently produced guidance for prosecutors on what to do if a woman retracts an allegation of domestic violence or rape.  The CPS claims that the new guidance will “protect individuals who retract a truthful allegation as a result of pressure or fear of violence”.  Yet having seen a draft, IKWRO is not so sure. 

The guidance as it stands leaves too much to the discretion of individual prosecutors.  For example, where a woman reports a crime which genuinely occurred, but later retracts her allegation saying that it was false, and then retracts the retraction (known as a double retraction) prosecutors are simply told to ‘give very careful consideration’ before deciding to prosecute.  This contradicts statements elsewhere in the document warning that where there is any possibility that the original allegation was true a prosecution should not go ahead. 

The guidance is also silent on the issue of how or when a woman should be informed that she could be charged.  Should police warn women that this could happen when they make their original complaint?  Should they do it while a woman is in the process of retracting her allegation, or should they wait until after proper consideration has been given to whether there is any likelihood that her original allegation might be true?  The very threat of charges will put more stress onto women who have already experienced rape or domestic violence, yet the guidance says nothing on this all important issue. 

Unfortunately, police officers don’t always treat women who have been raped or abused appropriately.   Countless examples of women simply not being believed – think Banaz Mahmod or the John Worboys case – already deter many victims from reporting crimes in the first place.  And now, what’s to say that the police, when deciding whether to charge someone with perversion of the course of justice, will not make the same assumptions as they did in those cases?  The consequences could be dire.

The criminal justice system needs to wake up to how hard it is for women to report rape or domestic violence and to go through with court hearings and prosecution, and needs to make it absolutely clear that in cases where there is any likelihood that the original allegations were true (including double retraction cases) no woman should ever be charged or face the threat of going to court.  Our response to the CPS consultation will be sending this message loud and clear.

Our blog has now moved onto our main website.  Check it out here, and find IKWRO on twitter and facebook

Four years ago today a 17 year old girl named Du’a Khalil Aswad was stoned to death in the square of her home town Bashiqa, in Northern Iraq. 

Today, it is still unclear why Du’a was killed.  Some say that she was simply talking to a boy in the street.  Others claim she had spent a night away from home, or had run away with a boyfriend.  Either way, the men of her village took it upon themselves to ‘punish’ her. 

Each year at least 5,000 women and girls around the world are stoned, burnt, stabbed, beaten, strangled, electrocuted or otherwise put to death in the name of so-called ‘honour’.  Often the victim’s only ‘crime’ is being raped, wanting to choose who to marry for herself, or simply being the subject of gossip.  While most ‘honour’ killings go unnoticed, Du’a’s murder made international news after mobile phone footage of it aired on CNN.

Once you have seen that footage you will never forget it.  A terrified girl is surrounded by an enormous, jeering crowd.  For half an hour they punch, kick and stone her.  When she tries to get up she is beaten back down.  No one answers her cries for help.  From the sidelines the police look on.  Finally, someone drops a concrete block on her face.  The crowd bursts into uproarious cheering.  A pool of blood surrounds her.  Du’a is dead.  

Talking to the Guardian’s Mark Lattimer, a local woman said that after her death Du’a’s murderers tied her body to the back of a truck and dragged it around town.  She was later buried with the corpse of a dog as a final gesture of contempt.  Even after this, she could not be left to rest in peace.  Months later her body was exhumed for medical testing.  The tests showed that she had died a virgin.

In Kurdish Du’a means a call.  Tragically, on the day four years ago when Du’a was murdered, no one answered her call for help.  And now, the video footage which should have been an international call to action has faded into oblivion too.

And yet, if you have ever watched that awful scene then you will have heard Du’a’s call loud and clear.  It is a call to people around the world to reject the concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ which are used again and again to justify the appalling and brutal murders of innocent women and girls.  It is a call to governments, police and the courts to protect women and bring the perpetrators of ‘honour’ killings to justice.  It is a call to international institutions like the UN to speak out against these terrible crimes, and to hold the countries that allow them to happen to account.

Today is the 7 April 2011.  Please join IKWRO in remembering Du’a.  She is a symbol of victims of honour killing all around the world – an innocent girl whose murder is a blight on humanity itself.  Help us to remember Du’a by sharing this story, talking to others about what happened to her, and speaking out against ‘honour’ killings, wherever you are in the world.

Our blog has now moved onto our main website.  Check it out here, and find IKWRO on twitter and facebook

Last week we wrote about cuts to ESOL classes.  This week the government announced that it would be getting rid of the Female Genital Mutilation Coordinator.  As of tomorrow – 1 April – the only post across all of Whitehall which is dedicated to tackling FGM in the UK will go.  Sounds like a bad April Fool’s joke, doesn’t it?  But it’s true. 

An estimated 24,000 girls in the UK are at risk of female genital mutilation and last month, the government launched new guidelines to protect them.   Speaking at the launch event Minister Lynne Featherstone said ‘I have seen first hand the effect this abhorrent crime can have on women and girls. This government is determined to put an end to it’.

Given the government’s latest move, we can’t help but question Lynne Featherstone’s commitment.  This latest cut will seriously undermine efforts to stop FGM in the UK.  Read more in yesterday’s Guardian article by Rachel Williams.

On a slightly more positive note, the government may be giving in to pressure to protect legal aid for migrant women who experience domestic violence while in the UK.  Under changes proposed by the Ministry of Justice, women who come to the UK on a spousal visa but then experience domestic violence and want to leave their relationship will no longer be able to get legal aid to help them apply for leave to remain in the UK in their own right.  Last month Rights Of Women led hundreds of women’s organisations including IKWRO in writing to the Ministry of Justice about this.

Speaking at the Lambeth Violence Against Women and Girls Conference today, Rhys Scudamore from the Home Office said that the Home Secretary ‘was aware of this issue and is fighting her corner’.  He seemed to be implying that there was a difference of opinion between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, with Theresa May determined to get her way.  It’s a space to watch.

You can stay on top of the developments and take action for legal aid by joining Justice for All.

Our blog has now moved onto our main website.  Check it out here, and find IKWRO on twitter and facebook

On Monday the loveliest woman came to IKWRO’s office for our Nowruz party.  Let’s call her Shahla.  In between dolma and baklava, she taught me some Middle Eastern dance moves.  She also told me how she ended up in England. 

Shahla’s in her late 20s.  She was part of the pro-democracy movement in Iran and had to leave her home, her family and all her friends behind when the Iranian government issued a warrant for her arrest.  She came here last year. 

IKWRO helped Shahla to apply for asylum, and even though her application has been approved she still stays in touch.  Shahla only started learning English when she arrived here, but when she phones our office she’s always polite and friendly and tries her best to get it right.  She wants to make a home for herself here, get a job and stand on her own feet.  She knows that learning English is vital. 

On Monday Shahla told me all about a fantastic English teacher she has at college – a woman called Maureen who teaches them about popular culture and traditions in the UK as well as grammar and vocabulary.  Maureen works hard to get her students excited and Shahla’s face glowed when she talked about her.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her English class could soon be shut down.

The government is proposing to change the rules so that free English classes will only be available for those on job seekers allowance or income support.  IKWRO is very concerned by these changes.  Asylum seekers, who aren’t allowed to work or get income support, will be excluded.  So will women on spousal visas, and people who are working in low paid jobs where you don’t have to speak English, such as cleaning.  Shahla will still be eligible under the new rules, but the drastic reduction in student numbers could cause her class to shut down anyway.

Today is a national day of action to protect English classes for speakers of other languages (ESOL).  The Action for ESOL Campaign’s petition already has more than 12,000 signatures.  You can add your name here:


If you’d like to support the Action for Esol Campaign in other ways, visit their website:


Our blog has now moved onto our main website.  Check it out here, and find IKWRO on twitter and facebook

Yesterday afternoon IKWRO held a party to celebrate Nowruz (or Newroz in Kurdish) – the Persian New Year.

By 2 o’clock our office was full of women young and old who had come to eat, drink and dance together.  We served fruit and traditional Iranian pastries and played music all afternoon.  One woman brought a hot dish of lamb and dolma (vine leaves stuffed with rice).  Another brought all the components for Haft Sin, a traditional table setting (pictured above) which is used to celebrate the Persian New Year.

Haft Sîn includes seven specific items starting with the letter S: sabzeh (wheat, barley or lentil sprouts, symbolizing rebirth), samanu (a sweet pudding made from wheat germ symbolizing affluence), senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree symbolizing love), sīr (garlic, symbolizing medicine), sīb (apples which symbolise beauty and health), sumac berries symbolizing sunrise and serkeh (vinegar which symbolises age and patience).

Normally women visit our office when they are going through trauma, but yesterday all of the women who came were smiling and happy – the way they should be.  They are all women whom IKWRO has worked with in the past – survivors of forced marriage, domestic violence, ‘honour’ based violence and other forms of abuse.  It was wonderful to look around the room and to see all of them proudly dressed in their best clothes, laughing, talking and sharing.  It reminds us of why we do this work, and inspires us to do even more for women this year.

IKWRO wishes a very happy new year to all of the women we’ve worked with over the years.  May 2011 bring you happiness, peace and prosperity.

Our blog has now moved onto our main website.  Check it out here, and find IKWRO on twitter and facebook

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