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How Jasvinder Sanghera, Founder Of Karma Nirvana, Has Saved Thousands Of Women

This Woman Used Her Own Experience Of Forced Marriage To Save The Life Of Others

The seeds of most charities are sown in the soil of personal experience.

In the case of Karma Nirvana, the charity that helpswomen and men who are subjected to forced marriages and honour based abuse, it is extremely personal for founder Jasvinder Sanghera.

Most of us cannot begin to comprehend the isolation, hurt, betrayal and fear that Jasvinder experienced at the young age of 14, when she was told in no uncertain terms by her family that she would have to marry the man she’d been promised to at the age of 8, but for the 750 or so people who call her helpline each month, they can understand all too well.

Since starting the charity in 1993 - when the authorities knew virtually next to nothing about forced marriage and few questions were asked about the children who would one day disappear from school without any warning – Jasvinder has been awarded an OBE, she has helped thousands upon thousands of women, men and children, and she has got the Prime Minister to back a bill criminalising forced marriage.

In fact, let’s use David Cameron’s exact words: “She turned my head on the issue of forced marriage.”

“The charity is driven by victims’ experiences of forced marriage, of which I was one,” she says.

“It was my personal experience of being a young person born in Britain, and my marriage was arranged at a young age. It was very clear I didn’t have a choice, and I didn’t want to marry this person so I ran away. My family’s response was that I was either dead in their eyes or I could go home to marry this man.

“I was living a life of being a disowned person before I was a campaigner. For years I carried the label that I was doing this to my family – that I was the perpetrator not the victim.”

In the aftermath of leaving home, Jasvinder tried to commit suicide twice and permanently walked around feeling numb. “I had severe depression,” she says.

While Jasvinder was trying to rebuild her life, the idea of Karma Nirvana was still a while off. The turning point came in her early twenties, spurred on by an extremely tragic event.

Jasvinder had been in touch with her older sister Robina – “that’s what happens in these situations, the disowned person almost always has a secret link back to the family” – who was in a horrific marriage.

“I offered to help her – she said, that’s easy for you to say. Her independence was rooted in honour – what the community would say – and she thought that was more important than her own happiness, her own life.

“I asked her to speak to my mother, and she in turn spoke to our community leader in Derby. This man reinforced the idea of duty. That she had to go back to her husband or it would kill the family – kill their reputation. I begged her not to back. I was 22, and she was 25 when she went back home. Shortly after that, my sister set herself on fire and committed suicide.”

Jasvinder was not allowed to go to the funeral, and although she thought it might soften her mother’s heart, it actually reinforced her position of disownment.

“I was an unworthy person,” she said.

That moment was when Jasvinder realised she wasn’t the perpetrator, but the person to whom things had been done.

“I became someone with a voice. We were taught to be silent but I found the confidence to talk about my own experiences and Robina’s. Community leaders could have prevented her death, but they didn’t.”

Twenty years ago, Britain was a very different landscape for young Asian women. Eastenders had just signed up its first Asian family – the Kapoors – but police and social services were not equipped to deal with what was perceived as a ‘cultural issue’.

Forced marriage and honour abuse, says Jasvinder, is a hidden crime.

There are always multiple perpetrators – the mum, dad, aunts, uncles – all perpetrating against this one person. “This person feels isolated, and loves these people so much because they are his or her family. So how much courage does it take to report this to the services? How much courage does it take when they risk being sent abroad, harmed, killed or disowned?”

To give you an idea of how far the charity has come, and how tirelessly Jasvinder has been grafting, when we spoke, she had just attended a meeting at Downing Street the night before. When she first started, she would try and engage with people – the police, women’s centres – and if she was lucky, she’d manage to get at least one person to listen to what she had to say.

By 1995, she had to employ different tactics. “I trained myself as a keep fit instructor, so I went to centres where I knew Pakistani or Indian women would go. Slowly I’d start engaging with them and slowly they’d start talking to me. I called it a women’s health project because it was safe for them to talk about their health.

“I did a health day, we had hundreds of women. We talked about PMT, childbirth and breast cancer. Within that arena we talked about depression, and then arranged and forced marriage and we called it a health day because it was okay for them to attend if their families thought it was quite general.”

On average, they got about one phonecall a month to the centre. And by 1998, she considered herself lucky if she now had more than four people in a room to hear what she had to say.

“But I didn’t stop. My conviction is the death of my sister – she didn’t have to die. These women I met and spoke to on my travels confirmed the work I was doing.”

Everything changed when Karma Nirvana got a National Lottery Award in 1998. It gave Jasvinder the resources she needed, but the phonelines still weren’t ringing.

“My volunteers would say the phonelines are dead, no one is calling. But I fundamentally believed they were there, they will call. We were lucky if we got one call a month.”

After a huge lobbying campaign – which near exhausted Jasvinder – the helpline managed to get government funding, which paid off. Between 2008 and 2013, the charity took 30,000 calls. “In the last two months, our helpline received triple the number of calls since last January.”

In addition to all of this, Jasvinder’s tireless work around advocacy – getting forced marriage criminalised – is about to be realised.

“I have been lobbying for a change in the law for 10 years. When it happens, what it will mean is immense. We are saying ‘this is against the law in this country’ we are empowering victims to own this as a crime.

“Overnight, victim can say to a perpetrator ‘this is against the law’ and professionals – so the police, teachers and social workers - can own it as a crime, not be fobbed off by being told its cultural. In the past people have worried about being called a racist, and finally we have legislation saying it’s against the law.”

So how did she get David Cameron to listen to her?

“I’m not political,” she says, “so I approached all three parties about the issue and David Cameron was the shadow cabinet leader then. I asked him to hear our survivors talking about their experiences and he invited us to a meeting in Bradford.”

After that meeting, Jasvinder gave him a copy of her autobiography Shame.

“He said ‘is this your story?” And I replied yes, that this actually happened to me. He read it, then wrote a letter to me saying that it had turned his head on the issue of forced marriage. When I saw Samantha Cameron yesterday, she said: “Dave never forgets that book, Jasvinder!”

Before he became Prime Minister he pledged to criminalise forced marriage, and now it has come to pass. “He said: For far too long – it is a modern form of slavery.””

It is hard to quantify how many people Jasvinder has helped, and how many lives she has saved. Whether it is people reading her book who tell her “it gave me the courage to leave” or women who come up to her and tell her simply: “you saved my life” over and over again, it’s clear that she had changed the face of honour abuse.

As well as her OBE, she has been named as The Guardian’s 100 most inspirational women, won a Cosmopolitan Wonder Woman award and a Pride of Britain award among others.

Aside from personal accolades, Jasvinder has left a legacy in the form of a documentary called Honor Diaries, which has just been released. Featuring the stories of nine women from across the world, it aims to achieve in the US what has been done in the UK - to raise awareness around forced marriages and honour abuse.

“Now I’ve gone from not having one or two people who wouldn’t hear what I had to say to an army of people who want to hear about it. It’s great because people are gathering together – the only way you can tackle an issue like this is by making changes.”

To find out more about Jasvinder’s work and Karma Nirvana, visit the website or if you are affected by the issues in this article, call the helpline on 0800 599 9247.