The Dishonor of Honor Killings with Jacqueline Thibault

Jacqueline Thibault, founder of ‘Fondation Surgir,’ a human rights organization which supports feminist groups in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Switzerland, addresses the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full remarks

Philippe Robinet: 

[…] as blasphemy laws and honor killings, the “Fondation Surgir”, lives not far from here in Lausanne and works with all of these women who are sentenced to death every year, because they’ve freely chosen their mate; women who are killed by their families, simply because they love someone. Jacqueline Thibault is going to talk about these women and after her testimony, we’re going to ask the Pakistani couple to come to the podium. 

Jacqueline Thibault: 

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’d like to talk to you about honor killings today. 

I’m sure many of you have heard about these killings of women. The UN estimates that there are 5,000 honor killings every year. I think this is a gross underestimate because local organizations say it should be multiplied by a factor of two or three, so the actual figure is much higher. 

Who are we? My foundation is “Surgir.” The foundation was established in January 2001. It’s a movement to defend and provide help to women against customary violence, such as forced marriage, early marriage, honor killings, and women who are burned, especially in India, because their dowry is not high enough. 

Our activities are very widespread in the Middle East and in Europe. In the Middle East, we work with local organizations; we don’t send foreign representatives out. We work on ordinary violence and we do a lot of prevention work, especially in the schools, because this works very well, and we also give public conferences and talks for men and women in these countries. We also conduct studies and seminars on honor killings and we have done so in Jordan, Yemen, Palestine, and Lebanon. 

In Europe, because honor killings have now made their way to Europe — we need to be aware of this — we have begun to work with people who originally come from Pakistan and Egypt to bring them to Europe if they cannot be aided on site. And the local organizations do a lot of direct work on site, because obviously, not everyone can move to Europe and change lifestyles completely. For the time being – so to date, we’ve brought over 65 people to Europe, most of them are women, many of them came with their children, others came with their husbands  because the men are subject to death threats also in their countries. And they can benefit from French classes, learn a trade, receive training and find housing, and once they become independent they can continue to live in Switzerland independently. 

Let me remind you quickly about what honor killings are; it’s a patriarchal custom, a non-religious, patriarchal custom — that’s very important – which authorizes members of a family of a girl or young woman who’s suspected of having broken the family code of honor, they are authorized to murder her. The idea is that there’s a duty to avenge the family or tribe’s honor and this comes with heavy pressure from the community; the entire community is familiar with a tradition and perpetuates it. The countries where honor killings are the most prevalent are in the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, and South America. Contrary to what you might think there are two states in Brazil where honor killings are rife. 

Having said that, there is a gap in our statistics, because the official UN figures, or the recorded honor killings for example, if we advance the figure 5,000 killings, we need to multiply this by two, three, or perhaps even more. But at this stage, since we don’t know who is committing suicide, who actually fell down the stairs, who has been pushed to commit suicide, who had an accident, all of these killings come under the heading of honor killings. I could give you the example of Turkey, where there’s a new extremely harsh law against perpetrators of honor killings. And due to this, there are far fewer honor killings. But unfortunately, the suicide rates amongst young women is on the rise. This means that the parents get off scot-free, because they say that their daughter died an accidental death or killed herself. 

Now let’s talk about honor killings in Europe. This should interest all of us because honor killings are, indeed, present in Europe. We realized that it was very difficult to grasp what honor killings were all about in Europe and we decided to publish this little booklet, which covers all the countries that we’re working on in Europe. Let me just quickly mention a few of these countries; a few of the countries that are looking very closely at these issues. The booklet is mainly intended for politicians, civil society. It’s sent to politicians in a variety of countries. It is published in Spanish, English, German, and French and we have contacted all the political parties and we also make presentations in the countries that I just named. 

To give you a brief explanation, the United Kingdom is probably the country that’s been working on honor killings for the longest time and the figure that they advance is 12 honor killings, ranges from 12 to 17 a year. The source is the Metropolitan Police Service. The UK is one of the rare countries to have developed a detailed prevention and enforcement policy against honor killings. So the police have been specially trained to identify honor killings and honor crimes 10 years back. Now that they’re familiar with these crimes, they are able to tell the difference between a common crime and an honor killing. The UK has a specialized police unit, a specialized unit on violence against women and girls, which comes under the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Their special police training, as I said — their education and awareness campaigns throughout the country — involving written material and training, and the police work with women’s associations that are specialized in the violence against women. 

In the UK, when a young immigrant girl is sent abroad for an indefinite period, her identity is registered, as is the destination address, if they can manage to get that address. If she has relatives remaining in the UK, the police remain in contact with them. And if the girl does not come back within two weeks or three weeks, the UK automatically alerts its embassy officials in the country where the girl is so that they can ensure that she’s in good health. This is something which has been an established procedure for the last five or six years. This young girl is Banaz Mahmod. She was 20. She was a victim of an honor crime in the UK in 2006. 

Let’s talk about Sweden. Now, Sweden has been doing extensive work on honor crimes for many years. The first conference took place in 2004 and since that time, Sweden has really opened a lot of shelters for women who have been victims of violence and has published an extensive volume on its work. There are two known cases of honor crimes, but there are many more that are not registered; we know that there is a much greater number. But until the corpse of the young woman has been found and recorded, they cannot be added to the statistics. 

And I forgot to tell you something which might be of interest to you. In Jordan, the forensic specialists see these corpses of young women killed because they were no longer virgins and 80% of these young women were actually virgins as it turns out after the autopsy has been carried out. So the accusers don’t even check to see whether the girl is actually virgin or not. A rumor starts going around the village and that’s enough to set the entire village or the entire neighborhood off and make them decide that she’s guilty and her family must avenge its honor and can only do that by shedding blood. 

One million Euros were invested by the Swedish government between 2007 and 2010 to fight honor killings. The Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality developed an action plan which contains 56 steps to fight violence against women, including honor killings. Let me just give you a couple of examples of these types of measures. Strengthened protection and support to victims, that’s extremely important, and I will tell you why in a few moments;  focus on prevention with specific training for social workers, medical workers, and teachers. All of the people who, in their daily work, are going to come into contact with young women who may later on become victims of honor crimes. And improve judicial standards. Well, it’s very laudable to want to improve judicial standards. And the police in all these countries are very interested in honor killings because it’s a good bet that we’re going to see more of them in the future. But police work and legislation are also important. 

Every country needs its own action plan on honor killings and the action plan has to include prevention, which will mean working in schools where there’s a high rate of immigrants, but also the other schools where they’re no immigrants, because a young girl might go to school and find out that her friend is being held by her parents against her will at home. So it’s important for everybody to be able to identify an honor crime. Then training professionals. Young people often talk to school nurses, for example, so they need special training. And another important part of these action plans is protection and I’m going to be talking about the protection measures that should be in place in all countries and not just in the countries that have already taken this in stride. 

Belgium is a recent addition to the countries working on honor crimes. Only one honor killing has been registered. But Belgium thinks that there may be up to 17, there are suspicions in many of the cases, and Belgium asked the Dutch police, which has great expertise in this area, to come to work with the Belgian police on honor killings. And Belgium has a National Action Plan for 2010 to 2014 to fight domestic violence and other types of family violence. And this action plan is managed by the Institute for equality between men and women (gender equality), which is based in Brussels. And this institute also works on forced marriage and other types of violence against women and young girls, including early marriage. 

Let me just show you this photograph of a young woman who was killed last year in Italy. We don’t have a lot of information about what Italy is doing about this. I don’t think that Italy has an action plan to date on honor killings. This young woman was killed age 18 by her Moroccan father, who refused to accept her relationship with a young Italian who was 31 years old. Mixed marriages are rejected in many countries between Christians and Muslims and, of course, marrying a European is also not acceptable. Even the women who’ve gone to live in another country have mostly married Muslims. 

Here are the recommendations on prevention. It’s absolutely necessary, crucial, to tell immigrants that you can’t be a vigilante. There is a justice system, a judicial system, and you cannot stand in for that system. Also, a comprehensive prevention and a program to prevent and fight these crimes is necessary in a policy to back that up. These are the recommendations of our foundation. We’re not anthropologists or sociologists, but I myself spent over 20 years in the Middle East working with families where honor crimes are a problem and young women who had been victims of honor crimes. So I lived in their midst and I saw how the mechanisms worked, how these things come about, and how we should approach this issue.

Sometimes, we meet young women who’ve been threatened with honor crimes who are underage and we cannot always help them immediately or directly, we need to talk to the families, we need to engage in mediation with the families. This is extremely difficult, it’s an extremely sensitive issue. It’s very important to know how to talk to the families, not to step right in and say to them, “well, we think there’s a risk that you might kill your daughter!” That, of course, won’t work. We talk about their daily lives, about their difficulties, the problems they encounter, and then a problem that they might possibly have with one of their daughters. And after you’ve met with them once, twice, three times, they often talk to you about their biggest problems. And sometimes it is possible to meditate. This takes time but the family will sometimes take the young girl back in the home. 

We need to encourage women who are threatened here in Europe to avail themselves of the shelters. I don’t think we need special shelters for honor crimes, that would be putting a label on the entire shelter. We need to accept them in the shelters for women who’ve been victims of domestic violence, etc. But the staff need to be trained in the specific aspects of honor crimes, as do the police. Honor crimes may be prepared for a long time, but they happen very suddenly. When they actually happen, they happen suddenly. So shelter, where there is somebody who has some expertise. These shelters need to be secured and in secret places in the country. In Switzerland, they are in the different Cantons. In Spain, they are spread over the country, throughout the country. And in France, the same is true. This is a wish, it’s not always easy to get the governments to cooperate in this. We need to give the victims a new identity. It’s easy to find people in Switzerland, it’s a small country, even if people have a new name. And people who want to kill or execute the young girl are going to be looking for actively; the father, the brothers, the cousins, and the extended family are going to be searching for the girl. Because if your honor depends on this, you can no longer wear your headdress, you have to leave your village, you have to leave your town. Of course, this is not the case, if you’re living in Europe. But since everybody has internet and everybody’s on the social networks now, it’s very easy to contact the tribe in the country of origin, send the girl to her home country for a holiday, and then let the members of the family who live in that country execute her there. 

If the girl stays in the country where she was born, perhaps she was born in Switzerland or in Spain, honor crimes can still strike her. So she needs to be taken far away from her family and she needs to be provided with long term rehabilitation. In Switzerland, we’ve seen girls who’ve been sent to another Canton and have to muddle through all alone. This is not possible. They’re traumatized. Some of them have been held prisoner. They’ve been separated from their families, their families have rejected them. This is terrible. They’re only – their only reference point, the only thing that they’ve ever known, is their family. They need money to live on. They don’t have a job. They don’t speak the language of the country or the Canton in Switzerland. So we need to help them become independent. And the big problem we have is a psychological problem and that is the separation from the parents, even though they know their parents want to kill them. It’s critical also to establish a network with other European countries working on honor crimes because sometimes we cannot help a girl in the country where she’s living and she will need to be sent to England or the Netherlands or to another country where there’s a shelter, a place for her where she can rebuild her life. That’s absolutely indispensable. 

And the last thing I wanted to say is that young girls who are under the threat of an honor crime need to be very cautious. If the family knows that the girl is receiving help, the person providing the help can also be a target. So we need to be very vigilant and wary about the way we work on this and take part in the training that is provided on honor crimes. Thank you very much.

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