Guest Blogger: Pragna Patel, Southall Black Sisters

The Human Rights Act (HRA) matters greatly to Southall Black Sisters because we struggle on a daily basis to ensure that the black and minority women that we serve - some of the most vulnerable in our society - have equal access to justice. The HRA is one important means by which such women can assert their basic rights and freedoms. They need the HRA to challenge the cultural and religious processes that seek to preserve community structures of power and patriarchy of which violence against women is one manifestation. They also need the HRA to challenge state institutions that fail them when seeking protection and justice in the face of such violence and oppression.

In the UK, after years of hard campaigning, we have had a decade or more of often quite impressive policies, laws and initiatives on violence against women. This includes recognition of specific forms of harm such as forced marriage, honour based violence, ritual abuse, female genital mutilation and so on. But we also know that there has always been a gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the government’s stance on women’s equality and human rights; a gap which points to continuing systemic failures in the state machinery of protection.

Banaz's story

A case in point is the response of the police to the case of Banaz Mahmood, a young Kurdish Iraqi woman. Banaz was killed for seeking a divorce from her violent husband so that she could marry her boyfriend who was from a different ethnic background. She was raped, strangled and buried in a suitcase by a group of men from her community at the instigation of her father and uncle, who were convicted of her horrific murder in 2007. Banaz’s case received considerable media coverage as an ‘honour’ killing. However, its real significance lay in the fact that prior to her murder, the police knew about the imminent risk to her life but failed to act to protect her.

Before her death, Banaz and her boyfriend had been subjected to a number of death threats and an attempt by her father to kill her. On New Years Eve in 2005, Banaz’s father plied her with drink in order to reduce her ability to defend herself as he prepared to strangle her in the family home. She managed to escape into the back garden and tried to alert her neighbour by banging on their window which she accidentally broke. Receiving no response, Banaz jumped over the garden fence and alerted the police. Banaz told the police about her father’s attempt to kill her and repeatedly asked for protection for herself and her boyfriend. The police response was dismissive. Instead of investigating the incident as one of attempted murder, they considered charging her for criminal damage for breaking the neighbour’s window! They perceived her to be either ‘drunk’, ‘attention seeking’ or simply ‘rebelling’ against her culture and religion. They did not take her allegations seriously.

What the Human Rights Act does

After Banaz’s death, her sister, who had herself escaped abuse in the family, sought accountability from the police. She wanted to know why they had failed to record or investigate Banaz’s allegations of violence and threats to her life in accordance with their own policies. Supported by legal aid, she was able to invoke the HRA to argue her case. The HRA places legal duties on public authorities such as the police to protect our right to life (Article 2), to not be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3), to respect for our private and family life (Article 8), and not to be discriminated against in the enjoyment of these human rights (Article 14). Moreover, the operational positive obligation under the right to life means that institutions like the police have a direct legal duty to take action when someone is at known and immediate risk. It is hard to imagine a more illustrative example than Banaz’s, a young woman who time and again had been subjected to appalling abuse, abuse which had been reported to the authorities. The HRA helped to shine a spotlight on the ever widening gap between state rhetoric on protecting all women from gender based violence and the reality.

Political rhetoric versus real life value

As Banaz’s case shows, the HRA matters because black and minority women in the UK are in a particularly precarious position. Not only do they have to contend with the climate of austerity and cut backs but also with the rise and entrenchment of authoritarian and fundamentalist religious power; a power that also seeks to deny them access to justice. Both the framework and language of human rights is vital to us because it allows us to challenge abuses of power wherever it resides, in the family, community or the state.

The situation in which we find ourselves is replete with irony. This government has signed up to the Istanbul Convention (a comprehensive European human rights framework for combating violence against women.) Yet it seeks to withdraw legal aid and the HRA – the very tools that women need to invoke a broader set of citizenship and human rights, in the face of pressures to conform to religion and culture.

The HRA ultimately matters to all of us because it helps us to assert the universality of the ideals of equality, justice, dignity and human security. It foregrounds the minimum values and standards that should shape our humanity and inspire us to strive for a better world.