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Protecting India’s young people against honour killings

Though no official statistics exist, one recent study (conducted by the Democratic Women’s Association) estimated that 1000 young people die each year in India due to ‘honour killings’.

These murders are normally carried out by family members when young people refuse to enter into an arranged marriage or choose a partner considered unacceptable by the family. Most killings take place in India’s conservative north-western belt, in the states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. This week, India’s Supreme Court has called for an end to this brutal tradition, calling the practice “barbaric” and “shameful”.

The Court places most of the blame for such murders on Khap Panchayats or community groups which run villages in rural regions. Though these village councils have no legal authority, they often decree that youngsters who marry into the wrong castes or religion should be punished. This week the Supreme Court has said the practice must be “stamped out”. Eight state governments have been directed to provide suggestions how this can be achieved and state administration and police departments have been told to ensure couples who marry against their family’s wishes are not harassed or subjected to any form of violence. Top officials emphasise that inter-caste marriages are in India’s national interest since they help to dismantle the out-dated caste system.

However, while local village councils are no doubt to blame in many cases of honour killing, there has also been a rise in the number of young men who carry out the practice where they perceive their family’s honour to be at stake. In Wazirpur, a triple murder hit the headlines last year where the perpetrators were not the parents but the brothers of the ‘disgraced’ girls. And the young men had been given no direct sanction for the killings by the community elders.

One social commentator believes that the situation is exacerbated by the illegal foeticide of unborn girls, which leads to a much higher ratio of men to women in some of India’s regions (around 800 women to every 1,000 men). With over a third of lower caste men unable to find wives, resentment can be high against women who go against their parents’ choices and ‘marry up’. Rather shockingly, after the killings in Wazirpur, some teenage boys expressed their approval of the murders. Therefore, as well as tightening the law by defining an ‘honour killing’ and introducing appropriate sentences for anyone found guilty, some social experts also believe Indian courts need to start punishing those who illegally abort girl foetuses. Because this practice not only deprives India of around 600,000 girls who would have been conceived each year, but also endangers many of those who were born.

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