Thousands of young women in Britain are living in fear of the "hidden scourge" of so-called honour killing, a conference of police, Home Office staff and victim support groups was told yesterday.
An estimated 12 such killings happen in the country every year, but they represent only the extreme end of a much larger problem of intimidation and abuse.
A small minority of British Asian families deliberately use the threat of violence against supposedly erring daughters and sisters who defy agreements on suitors and marriage, the meeting in Leeds was told. A week ago, a London businesswoman's cousin and brother were jailed for life for stabbing her to death in front of two young nieces, whose own courtship and marriage arrangements might in due course have been influenced by her independent spirit.
"This distorted view of 'honour' completely constrains the lives of many unknown victims," said District Judge Marilyn Mornington, a specialist in the subject, who chaired the one-day seminar. "For every killing there are 1,000 other women living in fear for their lives."
The judge, who sits in courts in Barnsley and Rotherham in South Yorkshire, praised Asian women's support groups which were involved in organising the conference. She said: "We need people from the communities themselves to come forward and speak. This is not easy for people to do because of the whole issue of honour. They could be putting themselves at risk. But the most important part of this is to change hearts and minds in the community."
The conference, designed to bring officials, including crown prosecutors and councillors, together with victims and campaigners, heard that the suicide rate among young British Asian women was almost three times the national average. This suggested high conditions of stress and lack of support not only from relatives and friends but also from agencies unaware of the extent of the problem.
Support groups called for more pro-active work by police, in spite of the need to tread carefully in sensitive ethnic minority matters. Jasvinder Sanghera, of the Karma Nirvana women's group in Derby, said that officers needed specialist training to spot signs of serious abuse as opposed to everyday family tiffs.
"Frontline officers want to do the right thing but how many women are walking into a police station right now with an issue that they then find isn't dealt with appropriately," she said. A young woman might be encouraged to return to her family to make things up, when this would actually put her in serious danger.
The conference heard that police were concerned about the real threat to lives from the practice, but also worried about accusations of racism if officers appeared to be acting harshly. The meeting follows the life sentences imposed at the Old Bailey last week on the killers of 25-year-old Samaira Nazir, a graduate and businesswoman from west London who chose the "wrong" man, an Afghan, as her fiance.
Her brother Azhar, a greengrocer, and her teenage cousin Imran Mohammed were convicted of stabbing her to death in front of her two nieces because she was defying family plans to find her a husband from among Pakistani friends.
Judge Mornington said that ending the practice would not be easy because it was based on a cultural mindset going back for centuries. But high-profile campaigns and the work of Asian women who exposed the bogus nature of the "honour" involved were making a difference.
She also called on the government to reconsider its decision last month not to bring in legislation outlawing forced marriages. Ministers were wrong to argue that existing laws against violence and intimidation were sufficient, she said.