17.5 Honour Based Abuse
Last reviewed in November 2023
Date of next review November 2026
See also Virginity testing and hymenoplasty: multi-agency guidance - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) (July 2022)
See also - Forced Marriage of a child
see also - Female Genital Mutilation
- Introduction(Jump to)
- Virginity testing and hymenoplasty(Jump to)
- Recognition(Jump to)
- Disclosure and Response(Jump to)
There is no statutory definition of Honour Based Abuse (HBA) but the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) defines it as ‘an incident or crime involving violence, threats of violence, intimidation, coercion or abuse (including psychological. Physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse) which has or may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of an individual, family and/or community for alleged or perceived breaches of the family and/or community’s code of behaviour’
Professionals should respond in a similar way to cases of HBA as with domestic abuse and forced marriage (i.e. in facilitating disclosure, developing individual safety plans, ensuring the child's safety by according them confidentiality in relation to the rest of the family, completing individual risk assessments etc.)
Virginity testing and hymenoplasty
Virginity testing, also referred to as hymen, ‘2-finger’ or vaginal examination, is an inspection of the female genitalia, intended to determine whether a woman or girl has had vaginal sexual intercourse.
For the purposes of the Health and Care Act 2022, virginity testing is any examination (with or without contact) of the female genitalia intended to establish if vaginal intercourse has taken place. This is irrespective of whether consent has been given.
The position of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is that virginity tests have no scientific merit or clinical indication as there is no known examination that can prove whether a woman has had vaginal intercourse.
Hymenoplasty is a procedure undertaken to reconstruct a hymen. There are a number of different techniques to achieve but it generally involves stitching hymenal remnants together at the vaginal opening, or surgically reconstructing a hymen using vaginal tissue. The aim of the procedure is to ensure that a woman bleeds the next time she has intercourse to give the impression that she has no history of vaginal intercourse. There is no guarantee that this will fully reform the hymen or cause bleeding when penetration is attempted.
Hymenoplasty is not the same as other procedures that could be performed on the hymen for clinical reasons (for example, surgery to remove remnant fingers of the hymen that cause discomfort, or to treat an imperforate hymen to allow menstrual blood to escape).
Virginity testing and hymenoplasty are forms of violence against women and girls and are part of the cycle of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse. Women and girls are coerced, forced and shamed into undergoing these procedures,
Some practitioners issue a certificate to prove ‘virginity’ after a virginity test or hymenoplasty, while some will simply tell the family or community members whether a woman or girl has ‘passed’ a virginity test.
Both virginity testing and hymenoplasty can be precursors to Forced Marriage of a child and other forms of family and/or community coercive behaviours, including physical and emotional control. Women who ‘fail’ a virginity test, are found to have undergone a hymen reconstruction, or do not bleed on their wedding night are likely to experience further so called ‘honour-based’ abuse including emotional and physical abuse, family or community disownment and even honour killings.
The practices are degrading and intrusive. They can lead to extreme psychological trauma in the victim, and can provoke conditions including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The practices have been linked to suicide. Virginity testing can result in damage to the hymen, tears and damage to the vaginal wall, bleeding, and infection. The risk of infection is also high in hymenoplasty, which has the added risks of acute bleeding during the procedure, scarring and narrowing of the opening of the vagina and sexual difficulties.
It is illegal to carry out, offer or aid and abet virginity testing or hymenoplasty in any part of the UK. These offences carry extra territorial jurisdiction and carry a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
UK nationals and residents who carry out a virginity test or hymenoplasty outside the UK also commit an offence in the UK. Virginity testing and hymenoplasty do not need to be an offence in the country where it takes place.
As with other forms of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse, these practices often take place behind closed doors, in highly conservative communities and cultures. Because of this, the numbers of women and girls that are subjected to these practices are not known. Women and girls and any other person who has female genitalia (meaning vagina or vulva) and is at risk of harm from these practices and procedures – intersex, non-binary, trans men and women with or without a gender recognition certificate – are included and protected by legislation.
A child who is at risk of HBA is at significant risk of physical harm (including being murdered) and/or neglect, and may also suffer significant emotional harm through the threat of violence or witnessing violence directed towards a sibling or other family member.
Significant harm is defined as a situation where a child is likely to suffer a degree of physical harm and/or neglect which is such that it requires a compulsory intervention by child protection agencies into the life of the child and their family.
HBA cuts across all cultures and communities, and cases encountered in the UK have involved families from the Irish Traveller community, Turkish, Kurdish, Afghani, South Asian, African, Middle Eastern, South and Eastern European communities, such as Romani Gypsy. Boys and men, particularly from global majority communities, who refuse arranged marriages or identify as LGBTQ+ are also at risk of HBA. This is not an exhaustive list.
The perceived immoral behaviour which could precipitate HBA include:
- Inappropriate make-up or dress;
- The existence of a boyfriend/girlfriend;
- Kissing or intimacy in a public place;
- Rejecting a forced marriage;
- Pregnancy outside of marriage;
- Being a victim of rape;
- Inter-faith relationships;
- Refusing an arranged marriage
- Leaving a spouse or seeking divorce
- Being LTBTQ+
Murders in the name of 'so-called honour' are often the culmination of a series of events over a period of time and are planned. There tends to be a degree of premeditation, family/community conspiracy and a belief that the victim deserved to die.
Incidents which may precede a murder include:
- Physical abuse;
- Emotional abuse, including: house arrest and excessive restrictions; denial of access to the telephone, internet, passport and friends; threats to kill.
- Pressure to go abroad. Victims are sometimes persuaded to return to their country of origin under false pretences, when in fact the intention could be to kill them.
Children sometimes truant from school to obtain relief from being policed at home by relatives. They can feel isolated from their family and social networks and become depressed, which can on some occasions lead to self-harm or suicide.
Families may feel shame long after the incident that brought about dishonour occurred, and therefore the risk of harm to a child can persist. This means that the young person's new boy/girlfriend, baby (if pregnancy caused the family to feel 'shame'), associates or siblings may be at risk of harm.
With regards to virginity testing and hymenoplasty, as with other forms of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse, these practices often take place behind closed doors, in highly conservative communities and cultures. Because of this, the numbers of women and girls that are subjected to these practices are not known. Women and girls and any other person who has female genitalia (meaning vagina or vulva) and is at risk of harm from these practices and procedures – intersex, non-binary, trans men and women with or without a gender recognition certificate – are included and protected by legislation.
Disclosure and Response
When receiving a disclosure from a child, professionals should recognise the seriousness / immediacy of the risk of harm.
For a child to report to any agency that they have fears of HBA in respect of themselves or a family member requires a lot of courage, and trust that the professional / agency they disclose to will respond appropriately. Specifically, under no circumstances should the agency allow the child's family or social network to find out about the disclosure, so as not to put the child at further risk of harm.
Authorities in some countries may support the practice of HBA, and the child may be concerned that other agencies share this view, or that they will be returned to their family. The child may be carrying guilt about their rejection of cultural / family expectations. Furthermore, their immigration status may be dependent on their family, which could be used to dissuade them from seeking assistance.
Where a child discloses fear of honour based abuse, the professional response should include:
- Seeing the child immediately in a secure and private place;
- Seeing the child on their own;
- Explaining to the child the limits of confidentiality;
- Asking direct questions to gather enough information to make a referral to LA children's social work and the police, including recording the child's wishes;
- Developing an emergency safety plan with the child;
- Agreeing a means of discreet future contact with the child;
- Explaining that a referral to LA children's social care and the police will be made
- Record all discussions and decisions (including rationale if no decision is made to refer to Children's Social Care).
Professionals should not approach the family or community leaders, share any information with them or attempt any form of mediation. In particular, family or members of the local community should not be used as interpreters.
Ongoing risk management is required even after the child has been removed perpetrators can be anyone from within the community and are often not limited to those people known to the child or victim.
All multi-agency discussions should recognise the police responsibility to initiate and undertake a criminal investigation as appropriate.
Multi-agency planning should consider the need for providing suitable safe accommodation for the child, as appropriate.
If a child is taken abroad, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office may assist in repatriating them to the UK.
For survivors over the age of 16, there should be a A Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference referal. A MARAC is a meeting to discuss ways to help victims at high risk of murder or serious harm. Information is shared at the meeting between representatives of the police, health, child protection, housing practitioners, Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs), probation and other specialists from the statutory and voluntary sectors.
If you need to seek independent advice about specific religious/cultural/faith issues, you can can access this guide- Guides to Culture, Customs and Etiquette for 80+ Countries (commisceo-global.com. Alternatively you can contact helplines such as Karma Nirvana or Iranian, Kurdish Women’s Right Organisation. Support is also available from Reunite, an organisation which supports parents and children who have experienced or at risk of international child abduction.
As a potential section 47 children act investigation, every incident involving a child must generate strategy discussion between police, children’s social care and the referrer as soon as practicable (and in any case within 24 hours)
If a joint section 47 investigation is agreed, a further strategy meeting will take place within 72 hours. Health professionals working with the family such as GP, Health Visitor or school nurse and Education should also be invited.
The investigation should be subject to regular reviews as set out in force policy. This should include consultation with partner agencies, particularly Children’s Social Care to discuss the outcome and address any further protective steps that need to be taken with regards to that child and any other siblings/family members.