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What are the causes and consequences of domestic abuse in South Asian families in the U.K?

Literature Review

In the UK, the concept of domestic abuse encompasses both men as well as women to be the victims of the crime of domestic violence. Recent statistics on the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimates shed some light on the extent of the problem in the UK. The statistics suggest that in 2014/15, 8.2% of women and 4% of men were estimated to have experienced domestic abuse. In sheer numbers, this amounted to an estimated 1.3 million female and 600,000 male victims (Woodhouse & Dempsey, 2016, p. 3).The CSEW statistics also suggest that 27.1% of women and 13.2% of men had experienced some form of domestic abuse since the age of 16. This means an there is an estimated 4.5 million female victims of domestic abuse and 2.2 million male victims between the ages of 16 and 59 in the UK (Woodhouse & Dempsey, 2016). CSEW estimates have reported domestic abuse against male victim of up to 59 years of age.

However, these statistics may not present the true picture in South Asian families, as there may be a tendency to not report crimes of domestic abuse (Izzidien, 2008). There are many studies that have drawn out this aspect of the relationship between domestic abuse and culture in South Asian communities (Izzidien, 2008; Mirza 2016). There is also some research that shows that there are many women who come to the UK trying to escape abusive relationships (Bowstead, 2015). Not only that domestic violence may be a reason for forced migration of women within the UK. The study is important because it shows a distinctive pattern of migration from other migrations because in this case the migration is forced and gendered in nature (Bowstead, 2015). Women who have to undergo this are forced to also sever ties from relatives, at least for the time being because at that time their primary concern is their safety or the safety of their children, if any and they avoid putting that safety into jeopardy (Bowstead, 2015). This is a matter of concern as it puts a woman into a position of forced change of residence and a life of anonymity at times, due to the fear of violence and threat to life.

As such, the issue of domestic violence is violates victim’s rights on many levels. There are specific human rights to life and liberty that are being violated here. These rights are safeguarded by the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Thus, the UK government has specific obligations and responsibilities to ensure the making of law and policy in order to deal with the problem of domestic violence and abuse. For that, the first step is the defining of domestic violence so that clear conceptualisation of this offence is done. This is imperative for the understanding of the crime as well as the identifying of its legal interventions. It is thus important to understand the definitive characteristics of domestic violence.


The House of Commons, Sixth Report of Session 2007-08 defined domestic violence keeping in mind the increasing incidence of honour based violence (The House of Commons, 2009, p. 12). The Report said that the so-called honour based violence differs from domestic violence. In the former, it is seen that the violence is often perpetrated by more than one individuals, and usually the perpetrators are members of the family or at times, members of the wider community (The House of Commons, 2009, p. 13). Victims may be men as well as women and the incidence is seen across religious spectrum, within the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish communities (The House of Commons, 2009, p. 13). Another important point made by the report is that the violence in the context of ‘honour’, is also a cultural phenomenon (The House of Commons, 2009, p. 13).

Honour is defined as a virtuous character trait of integrity or upstanding moral quality (Vandello, et al., 2008). As such the word honour has positive connotations, but unfortunately when the same word is used in conjunction with some violent activity in furtherance of community objectives often at the cost of an individual, it has a decided pejorative meaning.

This pejorative aspect of honour in the context of honour based violence is not a new phenomenon in society. In fact, historically and anthropologically, there is a lot of evidence that shows that the relationship between honour and violence is actually widespread and depending on the time, place, the perpetrator, victim and the society, honour based violence may either be condemned or revered (Strange, 2014). Strange argues that for Western societies such as the North Americas and Europe, to understand immigrant honour based violence, they have to first understand the nature of honour based violence that has historically been part of the Western societies (Strange, 2014). In her view, this keener awareness of Western perceptions would provide fresh insight into immigrant perspectives, which would prove to be useful in finding legal and social interventions for the problem.

Honour also has cultural significance in that it can be differently viewed and perceived within a culture. There are definite definitional issues that are involved in the conceptualisation of honour (Gill, 2014). However, honour does have three facets that may be commonly seen across cultural lines: a sentiment, a manifestation of that sentiment in conduct and the evaluation of that conduct in others (Pitt-Rivers, 1971).

Women face an oppressive life in a community beset with the ideas of honour, where women have to live within gender-role expectations and any behaviour that conflicts with the established norms of gender-roles is liable to be thought of as bringing shame to the family of the woman. That is why, in may South Asian communities, when incidents of honour based violence actually happen, the perpetrators, usually, brothers, fathers, or cousins, of the victim proudly display their handcuffs as a sign of their having upheld the community honour even at the cost of family or a loved one (Gill, 2014).

Honour Based Violence (HBV) is a serious problem for the society in which it is perpetrated. It goes to the root of the society and becomes difficult for law or policy to control, as most of the violence is hidden and there are a lot of cultural factors that come in the way of understanding the nature and extent of the violence. At the same time, any solution to the problem can only be found in understanding the nature of the problem. In case of domestic violence in the UK especially in the context of honour based violence, the key to understanding the themes of domestic violence in the UK is in efforts of understanding the nature of the violence down to the cultural and social implications of such violence. However, Gill argues that violence against women or honour based violence should not be viewed only from the cultural essentialism perspective (Gill, 2014). She argues that a multidisciplinary approach should be used to approach to the problem of honour based violence, in order to understand the nature of the violence as well as promising interventions (Gill, 2014).

In the multicultural UK, where there is a sizeable population from the South Asian communities, honour based violence is an area that needs some policy directive. One writer suggests that the correct approach into structuring such policy response would be to have a recourse to the sociological approach (Julios, 2016, p. 71). She suggests that the emergence of honour killing among the South Asian communities of the UK, is a ‘natural history’ development, which needs to be understood in that context. She calls the 1990s early period of public awareness and the 2000s the period which saw the emergence of unprecedented levels of literature on the issue of honour based violence (Julios, 2016, p. 74).

However, domestic violence faced by South Asian women in the UK is not only limited to the honour context, although it is a very important aspect of such violence. A more comprehensive definition of domestic violence has been published by the Home Office in March 2013. This definition reads:

“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional.” (Woodhouse & Dempsey, 2016, p. 4)

Furthermore, definitions of what would amount to coercive or controlling behaviour is also clearly given by the Home Office. Controlling behaviour would encompass “a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour” (Woodhouse & Dempsey, 2016, p. 4). Coercive behaviour would include “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim” (Woodhouse & Dempsey, 2016, p. 4).

As the issue of domestic violence takes cultural colour for South Asian communities, there are possibilities of crimes going unreported for fear of reprisals from the family or the larger community. One commentator says that there is a lack of official data and policies with regard to domestic abuse in South Asian communities. Due to the absence of such data, the “impact that such abuse has on women, children and young people in these communities, illustrates the fact that the experience of domestic abuse is still by and large regarded as the same for all those affected, irrespective of cultural context” (Izzidien, 2008, p. 1). Furthermore, she adds that the research shows that the way South Asian women perceive and experience it is in many aspects unique to their community (Izzidien, 2008, p. 1).

The incidence of domestic abuse having become a serious issue, law and has also responded to the problem. It is noteworthy that these responses are both of a civil and criminal law nature. The Serious Crime Act 2015, s. 76 makes it an offence for indulge in coercive or controlling behaviour as against an intimate partner or family member. The common law itself provides for a number of offences that can be applied to cases involving domestic violence. Thus, murder, rape, manslaughter, assault, threatening behaviour can all amount to domestic violence. It is noteworthy that in the UK, marital rape is also an offence as held by the House of Lords in R v R, [1991] UKHL 12. This was a landmark case in the English law and the court despite there being no common law precedent at the time on the issue, held that if a husband forcefully rapes his wife, he can be prosecuted for the offence.
A spouse who is threatened by an abusive partner can apply to the courts for non-molestation orders, occupation orders and domestic violence protection orders. The last mentioned order is issued to ensure that a suspected perpetrators leave the house where the victim is also residing.
Non-harrasment and restraining orders against threatening or abusive partners can also be obtained under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

The Home Office has also published a strategy early this year for the prevention of violence against women and girls. The strategy for ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) 2016-17 envisages the strengthening of local services and specialist support for the women and girls who are threatened or victimized in their domestic lives (HM Government, 2016).

It is important to note that children of women or men who face domestic violence are often silent victims of the offences and may be the direct victims of the perpetrator’s violent or coercive behaviour. In South Asian families, children may be caught up between the abusive and the abused parents, may be used as pawns, suffer abductions and taken away from the UK and generally suffer abuse themselves (Izzidien, 2008).

A recent study by Dr. Karen Harrison and Dr. Aisha Gill, reported that in Britain’s South Asian community, abuse was going unreported (Veigh, 2015). What was most disturbing about the study’s findings, is that rapists and abusers are escaping criminal liability and justice as sexual and domestic violence is going unreported by women and children who are trapped in a pervasive culture of shame (Veigh, 2015). The fact that marital rape is a punishable offence is completely ignored by the South Asian community as criminalizing sex with own wife is alien to the culture of these communities. In fact, there was little to no awareness of this aspect of criminal law by the members or even the religious leaders within the communities (Veigh, 2015).

The South Asian community also sees abusive behaviour from the family and extended members. In one study concerning UK and Pakistani born interviewees, the researchers found that five out of the six Pakistan-born interviewees, and three out of the five UK-born interviewees, experienced abuse from mothers-in-law (Mirza, 2016). As per the research, South Asian women can be victimised by not only their spouses, but also the family of the spouse. In particular, the victims reported abuse from their mothers-in-law. The research suggests that the intensity of abuse South Asian women can experience within an extended family structure is very great indeed (Mirza, 2016).

The interesting aspect of the report is that there are contrasts between the UK-born and Pakistan-born women. As is mentioned above five out of six Pakistani women reported abuse, as compared to three out of six UK born women. The research suggests for Pakistan-born interviewees, their immigration status and the factors and problems that are associated with it puts them in a more vulnerable position. Other factors that affect Pakistani born women may be seen in the differences in financial dependence, education, non-English proficiency and the fact that they are away from their home, may put them at a disadvantage (Mirza, 2016). The research was particularly focussed on the role that the mother-in-law plays in the equation. Her involvement may be direct or indirect. Direct involvement may include physical abuse and this may be carried out in front of the other family members as well (Mirza, 2016). As women who are also immigrants into the UK, feel dependent on their abusive British spouses or families, they may keep quiet about the abuse. This is a very common factor in many immigrant women’s experiences with situations of domestic violence.

In fact, immigrant women suffer from some specific disadvantages in domestic abuse cases. First, the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) can be an impediment for an immigrant woman to approach the police or the local authorities for help in domestic violence situations. This is due to the fact that she may feel that she does not have any financial security outside her abusive family (Anitha, 2008). This problem is amplified for women who are recent marriage migrants to the UK. Due to this, one author challenges the effectiveness of domestic abuse policy, because the policy does not take into account the “multiple dimensions of disadvantage that recent marriage migrants face” (Anitha, 2008).

There are a lot of studies in the recent times that have considered the vulnerability of recent marriage migrants and how these vulnerabilities fit into the discourse on domestic violence. These research studies have been conducted in the Australian, American, Canadian context as well, where there is a large South Asian diaspora. For instance, one study recounts the domestic violence suffered by Indian women in Australia and the barriers to using local services for reporting and intervention purposes (Colucci, et al., 2013). The research found that if compared to the actual incidence of domestic violence, the use of local services was very low and in the immigrant and refugee communities, the use of local services was even lower. The family violence service was avoided in particular by Indian women immigrants (Colucci, et al., 2013). Another research from Canada, shows that one of the principal barriers to reporting or leaving a spouse who was abusive, was the housing insecurity (Thurston, et al., 2013).

For immigrant women, this barrier was a major cause for not reporting domestic violence. The study suggested that in such situations, the best interventions were advocacy and cultural competency in services (Thurston, et al., 2013). This research specifically focused on the experiences of Cambodian marriage immigrants, who were sponsored by the abusive family, so they were unable to take action against their abusers (Thurston, et al., 2013). While these studies are Australian and Canadian, these studies indicate that the experiences that are faced by immigrant women in situations of domestic abuse are the same as they are in the UK. It would be interesting to compare the policy responses that have been made in these states, with those made in the UK. As such, the research that is available in the UK, does not consider this comparative analysis in great detail.

At the same time, the aspect of resilience and resources of immigrant South Asian women who have suffered violence at the hands of their intimate partners, or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), has also been the subject of some research. One study conducted interviews of 11 such women in great depth and found that after having the courage to leave their abusive partners, these women underwent some positive changes, with an increased sense of autonomy, positive outlook, and the motivation to remain busy and active (Ahmad, et al., 2013). The study suggested that these positive occurred as immigrant women found a higher sense of belonging to their adopted country (Ahmad, et al., 2013). As the sense of identity grew stronger with respect to their adopted country, these women had a higher sense of reciprocity and a desire to contribute to their community (Ahmad, et al., 2013). The study suggests that policy making for domestic violence in context of the South Asian immigrant women, needs socio-ecological approaches along with inter-sectoral coordination to foster resilience (Ahmad, et al., 2013).

The fact is that immigrant women do face different challenges than the ones faced by British women in a domestic abuse situation. Immigrant women usually do not have a strong family support that they can rely on as their family is usually in their native countries. The wider support for Immigrant women is in the community, however as it seen, the South Asian community has a different perception about gender roles, honour, marital rape and even domestic abuse. Immigrant South Asian women are therefore caught between the cultural conceptualization of domestic violence, which comes in their way of asking for help when they get caught in such situations. The other problem that they face is that they are sponsored by their abusive spouses or families who are British. They feel therefore that they are at the mercy of their sponsors. Usually their Visas read that they would not have Recourse to Public Funds and their abusers hold them to ransom based upon this (Ahmad, et al., 2013). The fear of destitution forces these women to keep quiet about the abuse. The government has introduced Destitution and Domestic Violence (DVV) Concession to be given in cases of indefinite leave to appeal applications by women who are victims of domestic violence. However, research shows that many of these applications do get rejected despite DVV (Evans, 2016). Language is also an important factor. As many of the immigrant women may not have English proficiency, their abusers may take advantage of the language barrier and may make them scared about talking to British people.

The key policy issues that are involved in this question are also relevant at this point. It is noteworthy that there is now a range of literature, that shows that the domestic violence experiences of South Asian women may be different and therefore would require specific policy considerations (Thiara & Gill, 2009). This literature also points to a disconnect between ethnicity and gender in government policy and practice (Thiara & Gill, 2009).

As the literature review shows, there is a lot of interest in the topic of research. However, despite the interest there are a lot of areas that remain in the grey zone. The issues of culture and honour and how they impact domestic violence policy and interventions needs to be studied in greater depth in order to get a better understanding of the nature of problem and the kinds of solutions that can be applied here in the situation. This makes this research very relevant at this point.


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