10 December 2017
Interview with Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana. Interview conducted by Avril Gillan, Fawcett Society volunteer

Jasvinder Sanghera is a survivor of a forced marriage and the founder of Karma Nirvana, a national award winning charity that supports both men and women affected by honour based abuse and forced marriages. Jasvinder is recognised as bringing the issue of forced marriage into the public domain and Prime Minister David Cameron stated that her work ‘turned my head on the issue of forced marriage’. Her work is recognised as being pivotal to the creation of a specific UK forced marriage criminal offence in 2014.

In 2016, the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage in 1,428 cases. These figures include contact that has been made to the FMU through the public helpline or by email in relation to a new case. Of the cases that FMU provided support to 371 cases (26%) involved victims below 18 years of age and 497 cases (34%) involved victims aged 18-25. In 2016, the majority of cases 1,145 (80%) involved women victims, while 283 cases (20%) involved male victims.

Karma Nirvana are currently campaigning for OFSTED to have a responsibility to question and report how well schools are safeguarding children from forced marriage. The most common victim of forced marriage is school-aged and schools therefore have power in preventing this form of abuse. Jasvinder talked to the Fawcett Society about her experiences as a survivor of forced marriage and an advocate for others in forced marriages.

Fawcett Society: What inspired you and gave you the courage to write about your story?

Jasvinder Sanghera: For me, back when I was 14 years old, I always believed that in my family and community these things were happening, but we were taught to always remain silent about them because we understood that you couldn't speak outside your family. When I left home and set up the charity in 1993 because of my sister’s death; she committed suicide, she was forced to marry when she was 15 years old, the response from my family that “this doesn’t change anything, you’re still disowned, you still shamed the family” nothing changes, and I felt so strongly about telling the story. The story was important to share because it happened to me, it happened to my sister and what I fundamentally believed was that there were many more people out there and there was a need to break their silences as well. It was extremely cathartic and therapeutic and also the fact that in sharing the story it was my way of saying “you’ve done this to me but equally I’m also rising from it”, and that was really important to say that too.

We need to recognise that this is a part of our community in Britain, this is happening in the UK and the fact that you could be disowned by your whole family and community is one of the most harrowing experiences. I’ve been disowned for 37 years now and to try and put into words how that feels is very difficult. However I know that if I was sixteen years old today I would make the same decision, because I cannot put a price on the fact that my children will never inherit that legacy of abuse. 

What do you think the Government could be doing to prevent this from occurring in the future and being passed down to the next generation?

J: I think first and foremost when we think about forced marriage, and other forms of honour based abuse, it’s not thought about in the same way as the broader domestic violence agenda. So when people think about domestic violence, they think about a man and a women, and there’s more awareness now of men being also affected. Forced marriage is what I call the poor relation, when we talk about domestic violence, because it’s often an afterthought, it’s very often not discussed in meetings as being a form of abuse. In fact it’s thought of very often in that one culture, we don’t want to meddle there and rock the boat and create tension.

What the government needs to do - and I always make the point that I was born in Britain and I want to be afforded the same level of protection as my white counterparts - we need to increase accountability, we need to ensure that people recognise that this is happening. We need to ensure that people recognise this as a form of child abuse, a safeguard issue and it’s a child protection issue, and frankly we’ve still got a long way to go. Criminalisation talk is so important in raising awareness to say that this is against the law in Britain and it’s not a part of just one culture.

What the government hasn’t done, is we haven't seen a campaign which sends out a strong message about the law. We’re in a position where we’ve had a criminal law against this since 2014, we've had one criminal offence, and the law hasn't been given the opportunity to shift attitude and change mindsets and that's a real shame. We’ve seen domestic violence campaigns, national campaigns,  but we’ve never seen a campaign that speaks to the experiences of victims of child marriage, forced marriage, here in the UK. They need to ensure that they’re holding to account the authorities that have a duty under the statutory guidelines to tackle forced marriages, and we haven't seen that.

For anyone less familiar with this issue, what is the difference between arranged marriage and forced marriage - and when do the lines become blurred?

J: What we have to be mindful of is that when people talk about arranged marriages, which are a tradition that happen across many communities, and has been done for centuries, whenever you're arguing about arranged marriages whereby two parties are consenting to the marriage and the family have taken the lead in organising that marriage, the key thing to remember is that it’s about consent. Consent to say yes or no. Where the line is crossed is where you have one or both parties who say to mum or dad “I don’t want this” and mum or dad say “well actually you don’t have a choice” and duress becomes a factor and they’re forcing you.

I find that people that tend to say “we shouldn't be calling it forced marriage, it’s arranged marriage”, I think they find it incredibly uncomfortable, it’s almost a form of defence,  But if you think like that you almost become part of the problem. And there’s no need to defend arranged marriages because we know arranged marriages are perfectly acceptable where there is consent. The fact is that those who have had successful arranged marriages should actually come forward and say “I’ve had a very successful arranged marriage, however what is unacceptable is whereby that consent is removed and an arranged marriage becomes a forced marriage.” It's about speaking to that truth; I know people who have had arranged marriages and they're incredibly successful, but what I don't hear is those people actually coming forward and saying that forced marriages are wrong. No one is denying that people can have happy arranged marriages, but help us to raise the debate around what clearly are other people who exist who have had forced marriages and have been made to believe that it was an arranged marriage.

What we’re hearing on the helpline now is many many victims coming forward who now recognise that their arranged marriage is forced. So that is a question that we have to answer and discuss, because here are a number of young people who were made to believe that these were arranged marriages and later on in life and with all of this awareness realise that they were forced into their marriage. You have to answer that as well.

What options would a woman, or indeed a man, have in that situation where they realise that their arranged marriage was a forced marriage?

J: It's incredibly sad because we do hear of these cases all the time on the helpline, we do help them to recognise that too, but by that time they are already 10 or 15 years down the line, with children too, and there’s all the pressures of the family etc; the point here is for them it’s a more difficult decision to make to break free. The emotional support is there on the helpline, we offer practical support, we offer anyone help, we help and mentor them to leave that marriage if they want to, it’s all there for them… but in a sense they feel a greater pressure because the family. What you have to remember about honour based abuse and forced marriage is there are multiple perpetrators in the family dynamic and all individuals feel pressured to stay in that marriage for the sake of shame and the kids and all the rest of it.

What you would consider to be the biggest success in your advocacy work so far?

J: For me, it would be, first of all you have to remain true to yourself and have resilience and persistence. For me, what I always fundamentally believed when I set up Karma Nirvana in 1993, was that there were many women out there affected by this just like me but we were not seeing any reporting whatsoever. So to go from 1993 to 1997 with no reporting whatsoever, then to over time establishing a national helpline in 2008 which is called the Honour Network Helpline today, funded by the Home Office, from 2008 to 2016 it’s received over 60,000 national calls.

For me the greatest achievement will always be the fact that the work and the campaigning has made an impact on the reporting of those victims. We’re currently receiving around 850 calls a month of which around 42% are professional callers, so again we've increased the accountability of professionals who are calling the helpline about victims seeking guidance and advice, but all of the other callers are victim callers; first time, repeat or survivors. So for me that's the fact that in 1997 I didn't think that there’s not much of a problem out there, no one is calling the helpline; I believed that they were out there they just didn't know that we existed, so not giving up.

If someone was wanting to help out on this issue, what would you suggest they could do to help?

J: Just last night we held an event that we call a community champions event and this is for anyone who is interested in volunteering for Karma Nirvana; you don’t have to be based in Leeds you can be anywhere in the country, no matter what walk of life you come from, whatever background, gender, sexuality - it’s about are you interested in making a difference in this field and campaigning with us jointly. Because what we know is that we have to find like minded individuals and foot soldiers, that’s what we want.

The campaign is a societal campaign - for Karma Nirvana, we welcome people to go to the website, we’re recruiting right now for volunteers, and we’re looking for people to develop them as individuals in their interest areas, but also for the organisation. For example we’re looking for people right now to give presentations in schools, to help us to shape and inform campaigns, to write blogs and increase our communications to put the word out there, to get people involved in thinking about becoming advocates in their area but using Karma Nirvana to help in their area.

If you become a community champion for us, you’re not out there working in isolation you’re a member of the team, and you have all of the support of that team - you may have an idea, for example a sixteen girl last night said it had completely shifted her thinking (she spoke at our day of remembrance this year, we have a national day of remembrance to honour the members who have been murdered by their families in honour abuse cases, as part of a three year campaign). She spoke on that day and it completely shifted her mindset and it made her want to be an activist and campaign, she came last night and said she wanted to be involved more while doing her A levels and asked what she could do. It’s about galvanising that passion and that interest, tell us what your interest is in and we can help to shape and inform that.

The important thing that people need to know is that you don't need experience and qualifications to be an activist, what you need to have is a fundamental sense of right and wrong. If you believe in an injustice in any kind, it doesn’t matter whether it's happened to you or not personally it doesn’t matter.

Learn more about Karma Nirvana by visiting their website here. If you are a victim of forced marriage, you can call their helpline on 0800 5999 247, from Monday - Friday: 9am - 5pm.