On Wednesday 6 February the University of Warwick's Asian Society were honoured to have forced marriage survivor and co-founder of the charity Karma Nirvana, Jasvinder Sanghera, give students a talk about her experiences and the campaign against forced marriages. It was a highly inspiring and emotional talk, and I think it is safe to say that I have never seen an audience so focused on a speaker. It really was an incredibly moving talk.
Before commencing on Jasvinder's incredible journey, forced marriages must be defined. One of the biggest misconceptions is that many people interchange the terms arranged marriage and forced marriage, as if they mean the same. However, they could not be more different. Rather, they can often be treated like a transitional process. Arranged marriages are consensual; the instrumental factor where parties involved are able to say 'no' and not fear being harmed, abused, or even having their lives taken away by not agreeing to the marriage. As soon as this decision is ignored and those involved are being threatened or coerced into marrying the other person, this marriage becomes forced.
After watching the majority of her older sisters being forced into a marriage, Jasvinder was determined to not endure the same fate at the mere age of fifteen. She was an ambitious individual, who like many British students at the time, aspired to go to college and dare she say, university. This may seem a surprise to many readers who consider these aspirations as part of British life. Unfortunately, however, having such an ambition was unheard of within Jasvinder's and many other South Asian families. For Jasvinder, this was not a case of wanting to be more 'Western'. She just did not want to marry a stranger and wanted freedom; something which is often taken for granted in this country.
She ran away from her home and escaped the forced marriage, but at a cost; her family disowned her. They were ashamed to know her and in her mother's eyes, she was 'dead'. Why was it such a crime to live her life? Jasvinder was made to feel like the decision she had made was wrong and that it was dishonouring her family. The irony was that her family forcing her into a marriage was an immeasurable amount worse. She did not hear from her mother again, except when she phoned Jasvinder to tell her that her sister, Rubina, had committed suicide to escape her own forced marriage. For Jasvinder, this was the final straw. This was the motivation to start Karma Nirvana and to not only get forced marriages onto the political agenda, but to create a law against it.
Whilst Jasvinder's case was horrific, it was not an isolated one. Plenty more young girls were not forced marriage survivors like her, but instead faced the disastrous consequences of it, including honour-based crimes and even death. In fact, Jasvinder was keen to highlight the relationship between forced marriages and honour-based crimes. This is where crimes are committed to protect or defend the honour of the family or the community. The two are interlinked, and either can cause the other.
Given the atrocities related to forced marriages, one can question why it has not received as much attention as it rightly should. The problem lies within the fact that many Government officials regard forced marriages as a 'cultural' issue, thus it becomes ignored. This attitude is then replicated across the rest of society. Police officers, the people who many victims turn to when they are seriously at risk, turn young women away because "parents know best" or this is a case which just requires some mediation with the family. However, it is not as simple as it may seem on the edge of the battleground. Forced marriages are not 'cultural'; they are abuse.
Although there is currently not a law against forced marriages, it is due to be debated and voted on in September of this year. Whilst some claim that it may simply be a token offering and that social attitudes need to change; Karma Nirvana is adamant that a law is symbolic in many respects. Not only will it give police officers a reason to take forced marriages as an issue, seriously; it will also demonstrate to victims that the law is on their side.
Alongside a law, Karma Nirvana is determined to spread a campaign against forced marriages within schools, especially in high-risk areas. They say "a wise man once said that the best time to influence the life chances of a child is about one hundred years before it is born. And that's what we say too." One cannot assume that a child born in this country will hold the view that forced marriages are wrong if their parents are the major influence in their lives. Consequently, teaching school children about forced marriages is the key to eradicating them.
Despite her experiences, Jasvinder is optimistic about the law and believes that we can counter the messages. As stated earlier, as the battle continues, a law will change the way people think about forced marriages. "Defeating the scandal of forced marriage and honour-based violence is one the most serious and urgent moral challenges the UK faces today." Thank you to Jasvinder Sanghera for talking about a sensitive and touching issue, and I wish her and her charity all the best in achieving their aims.