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Murder in the name of family honour

At a landmark conference held recently in Ramallah in the occupied Palestinian territory, delegates were told of documented cases of “honour” crimes where women and girls had been poisoned, strangled, shot and forced to commit suicide by arelatives because their alleged behaviours had tarnished the family “honour”. These behaviours included talking on the phone with a man, being late or the mere rumour or supposition that an illicit behaviour may have happened.

Palestinian Minister of Women’s Affairs, Rabiha Diab © BOKRA photoGlobally, around five thousand women and girls are murdered and abused every year by male relatives as punishment for a range of behaviours judged to have damaged the family reputation. The so called “honour killings” by relatives are often in response to perceived breaches of traditions governing sexual behaviour; the woman may have been raped; she may have expressed a desire to choose her own husband; said she wanted a divorce; or tried to claim an inheritance.

The killers mostly go free: in some countries it is not illegal for relatives to murder female family members thought to be guilty of transgressions and where there are avenues for prosecution they are often not pursued.

The Ramallah conference was organised by the UN Human Rights office under the auspices of the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs and in partnership with the UN Development Fund for Women, and the occupied Palestinian territory’s Independent Commission for Human Rights and Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling. The objective of the gathering attended by representatives from the Palestinian Authority, the Christian and Islamic communities, civil society and the UN was to pool the available knowledge, raise awareness and launch a national strategy to eradicate the practice.

The Palestinian Minister of Women’s Affairs, Rabiha Diab told delegates that “honour” killings were not a new phenomenon but remained taboo. “It is time,” she said, “for the Palestinian Authority Institutions and religious leaders to prioritize its eradication from our society. The reform of the penal code and the adoption of a Presidential Decree are key steps to end impunity for such crimes.”

Multiple cultural, religious, societal and economic conditions, beliefs and traditions make the practice complex and difficult to eradicate. In the occupied Palestinian territory, accurate figures are not available but law enforcement agencies and the Independent Commission for Human Rights estimate that violence against women is increasing in general, and that the number of women being killed in the name of “honour” has risen.

Conference delegates called on local religious and political leaders to encourage the attitudinal changes necessary to eradicate “honour” killings. The media also has an important role to play. Muntaser Hamdan from the Media Forum urged the Palestinian media to improve its “inadequate coverage of honour killings”.

Participants agreed that the current laws are discriminatory and do not adequately protect women and girls from “honour” crimes, rape, sexual abuse or incest. For example, criminal law provisions throughout the occupied Palestinian territory reduce penalties for men who kill or attack female relatives accused of adultery or extramarital relationships. The central recommendation arising from the conference is for reform and standardization of relevant legislation and criminal codes.

At the conclusion of the conference a Task Force was established under the leadership of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs specifically mandated to address the phenomenon of crimes committed in the name of “honour” in the occupied Palestinian territory.

7 May 2010