The United Nations reports that family members kill more than 5,000 women and girls around the world each year in so-called honor killings. It is the punishment often meted out to women suspected of unsanctioned sexual behavior and believed to have brought shame on the family. Honor killings are most prevalent in strictly traditional societies in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. But they also occur in the West. VOA's Mandy Clark reports from London.
Shazia Qayum spent five years living in shelters. She could not turn to family members for help -- she was in hiding because of them. She says, "At the beginning, I was in fear for my life. I was never threatened by my parents that they would take my life and they would kill me, but I was still fearful."
Qayum's crime -- she wanted to divorce her cousin whom her parents had forced her to marry on a family holiday to Pakistan. "For me that was one of the hardest decisions I ever made in my life, also thinking that the consequences of me leaving would be my parents would never speak to me again, my siblings would never speak to me again," Qayum recalled.
Qayum says she felt alone, isolated and suicidal -- until she met Jasvinder Sanghera. Sanghera had a similar story. Her parents tried to force her into marriage, but she fled and went underground for years. It was only after her sister, Robina, committed suicide over an abusive marriage that Sanghera became an activist.
Sanghera explained. "She cried for help because she was suffering horrific domestic violence in her relationship and every time she went to the family she was told to go back and make the marriage work for the sake of honor, their honor. So, she went back and in the end she set herself on fire."
Sanghera wrote a book about her experiences and set up safe houses and help lines that have helped thousands in Britain desperate to escape forced marriages and honor violence. "I felt strongly that I was one of many. Robina's death did not have to happen and it shouldn't be in vain," she said.
The problem is starting to get public attention. In 2007, the stoning death of a Kurdish Iraqi teenager, Dua Khalil, got worldwide coverage. She was accused of dating outside her religion.
Diana Nammi, from the International Campaign Against Honor Killings, says honor crimes are a global issue. "At the moment it is increased. I believe it's just due to the rise of fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism especially, around the world, mainly in Middle Eastern countries."
There have also been high-profile honor killings in Britain. Sixteen-year-old Heshu Yones' father killed her for dating a Christian.
Banaz Mahmod had her boyfriend film her in the hospital after her family attacked her. In the video, she says her father and uncle tried to kill her because she fell in love with a man the family did not want her to marry. Later, police found her body in a suitcase. Both men were convicted of murder.
Sanghera believes the police failed Banaz because they did not take her case seriously. "They sent her away on more than four occasions and didn't believe her -- the sheer disbelief factor kicked in. 'What -- your father is going to kill you for kissing a guy at the Tube station -- I don't think so'," she imitated.
Government officials say there are 12 honor killings a year in Britain and they are now training police, doctors, and teachers to look for warning signs of possible abuse.
Vernon Coaker is the minister for honor killings. He says, "Let's just be clear about this. Leaving the word 'honor' aside, we are talking about killing. We are talking about murder and we will do all we can to bring anybody who does that to justice."
Shazia Qayum is no longer hiding in shadows. She is now the spokeswoman for the government-sponsored Forced Marriage Unit. She is taking on schools that are turning a blind eye to the issue. She says, "For me it is really important for young people to know that there is help and support out there, to put posters in schools, like we have drunk and alcohol posters. Why are we worried about offending parents? This isn't a political correctness issue, it's a human rights issue."
Shazia Qayum and others like her hope their work will also convince parents and the public at large that honor killings are murders and they must be stopped.