Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. After escaping a forced marriage as a teenager, Jasvinder Sanghera set up a national charity to support other survivors – and over the last 25 years, she’s helped thousands of women.
Aged 16, Jasvinder Sanghera made a decision that would change her life forever. Born into an Indian Sikh family in Derby, she was expected to marry an older man her parents had picked out. Sanghera had already watched her five older sisters be forced into unhappy, abusive marriages, and knew she didn’t want to marry the stranger her parents had chosen.
When she refused the marriage, her home life became unbearable. Her parents pulled her out of school and locked her in her bedroom, only letting her out once she agreed to the wedding. But before she could be married off, Sanghera ran away. Her boyfriend at the time helped her escape her parents’ house, and they fled to Newcastle.
When the police tracked them down, they persuaded Sanghera to call her mother, who told her she had two choices: either return or marry the stranger, or be cut off from her family forever. She chose the latter.
Today, Sanghera is 52, with a CBE, three grown-up children, two grandsons, and a loving partner – who, she tells me proudly, is an avowed feminist. She is also the founder of Karma Nirvana, the national charity supporting survivors of forced marriage and honour-based abuse. The organisation, which she set up from her living room in 1993, will celebrate its 25th anniversary later this summer.
To date, Karma Nirvana’s telephone helpline has dealt with 68,000 calls from survivors and professionals working with survivors, and its lobbying directly contributed to the government making forced marriage a crime in the UK in 2014.
But Sanghera isn’t resting on her laurels. Despite being criminalised, forced marriage and honour-based abuse are still pervasive problems in the UK: in fact, the number of such cases rose by 53% between 2014 and 2017, with just 5% of reported ‘honour’ crimes reported by police to the Crown Prosecution Service. Clearly, there is still much work to be done.
Below, Stylist speaks with Sanghera about her experiences, her achievements, and her hopes for the future.
How did your own experiences lead to you setting up Karma Nirvana?
I was at risk of a forced marriage, and I watched my sisters be forced into marriages. At 15, my sister Robina was forced into a horrific, abusive marriage; when she tried to leave, my family encouraged her to go back for the sake of their so-called honour. She committed suicide by setting herself on fire in her early 20s.
Before Robina’s death, I was in hiding from my family. In fact, for the first few years [after I left home], I didn’t actually own the fact that I was a victim: I felt like a perpetrator for hurting my family. But when she died, I decided to come out of hiding and give voice to our experiences by establishing Karma Nirvana.
What we went through still shapes the charity today, and informs how we engage with survivor voices. After losing a family and my sister, the charity was part of my salvation: I poured all that loss and pain into the organisation, so it’s helped me as much as I hope it’s helped many others.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about forced marriage and honour-based abuse?
The biggest misconception is that forcing someone to marry is just part of certain cultures. It’s not, it’s abuse, and it impacts people from all kinds of backgrounds – from South Asian to Kurdish, Iranian, Somalian, Afghan and Traveller communities. It also affects white British women who marry into certain communities and have dual heritage children.
But before it was made a criminal offence in 2014, victims would report they were being forced into marriage and professionals would respond: “But isn’t this part of your traditions? I don’t want to offend anybody.” That’s why criminalisation was so important: it makes it clear that forced marriage is not justified by any tradition, religion or culture.
Today, Karma Nirvana provides training to the police, NHS and social services in how to deal with forced marriage and honour abuse. You also do school visits. Why is this kind of outreach so important?
Education is key to keeping people safe. Imagine what could happen if a victim goes to the front desk of a police station and the officer says, “Let’s just go and talk to your mum and dad about how you want a bit more freedom!” If people don’t understand the context, they could actually put people’s lives at risk.
It should be mandatory for schools to raise awareness of the problem so that all young people know how to report it, because we know that people aged between 12 and 19 are most affected. We’re currently only addressing the tip of the iceberg of this abuse because it’s so underreported. If you can increase reporting, you can help with prevention.
You’ve said that you don’t feel like conversations about forced marriage are on the mainstream domestic violence agenda. Why do you think that is?
People don’t see it as a form of domestic abuse because they see it as ‘other’. It’s an add-on to mainstream policy around violence against women and girls. I’ll often go to meetings about domestic violence where forced marriage and honour abuse aren’t even on the agenda, and then when you bring it up people go, “Oh yeah, that is important as well.” I don’t want it to be an ‘as well’ anymore.
Domestic violence is often looked at through feminist lens; do you see honour abuse and forced marriage as a feminist issue?
Absolutely, because it is all about how society views and treats women. And because it’s a feminist issue, it should be everybody’s responsibility. I don’t subscribe to black feminism or white feminism; we should all be taking a stand against this together, whatever class or background we come from.
What are your goals for the future?
I hope that that our helpline will continue to be funded by the government, and that forced marriage and honour abuse become mainstream subjects. Most people in the UK today have heard about domestic violence and know it’s wrong, and I hope honour abuse and forced marriage will become one of those issues where anybody who hears about it will think, “That is against the law. There is a helpline number for that. We know what to do or tell our friends.”
I also hope that survivors become part of whatever anyone does around honour abuse in the future. Karma Nirvana is launching a survivors’ website next month, because we recognised they needed their own space to connect with other survivors and become a national network in their own right. Survivors are so important: their stories, their voices. We are galvanising a new community, and they need to be seen and heard.
I know that we’re impacting future generations with what we’re doing, and that makes everything I’ve been through seem alright. It reminds me that I’ve made the right decisions. If I was 16 again, and in the same position as I was back then, I would do exactly the same things.
The above interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Images: Courtesy of Jasvinder Sanghera / Getty Images