Jasvinder Sanghera CBE Interview – Activist, Campaigner and Founder of Karma Nirvana

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My mission hasn’t changed in 25 years, this was to increase reporting, reduce isolation and save lives.  The vision was to break the silences of the many thousands silenced by honour abuses and forced marriages.  The values of sheer determination and to speak about the issues with conviction, truths and commitment drives Karma Nirvana.” – Jasvinder Sanghera.

Jasvinder Sanghera is a Forced Marriage Survivor, Activist, Campaigner, Founder of Karma Nirvana & Author of Three Books. The Guardian listed her as one of the world’s 100 most Inspirational Women and she has been fighting forced marriages and honour-based abuse – both in her native Britain and internationally. The charity Karma Nirvana she founded in 1993 has helped establish several refuge centres for South Asian men and women fleeing forced marriages. Her commitment stems from personal experience, after running away from home fourteen years old, faced with the prospect of forced marriage.

Good afternoon Jasvinder. It is a pleasure for us to interview inspiring, courageous and phenomenal women like you. Can you tell us a bit about what triggered you to start Karma Nirvana and the story behind it?

When I left home to escape a forced marriage, I did not expect my families response that I was ‘dead in their eyes’ and subsequently disowned, so overnight I lost every member of my family.  I lived in a space where I felt (as this is how they made me feel) that I have had done this to my family, I was the perpetrator and I was not worthy of them.  So, the years that followed were the most isolating times of my life, as the missing was horrendous and the need for their acceptance.  I carried on with my life in this space and made the significant decision to come out of hiding and start to share my story to break the silences of forced marriages and honour abuse, after my dear sister Robina committed suicide.  My sister was forced to marry at the age of 15 and her life changed on that day forever, until she set herself on fire and committed suicide and I heard the echoes from many in my family and community of how it was better for her to take her life than to dishonour a family and leave her abusive husband.  This was the trigger for founding Karma Nirvana, in her memory and to give voice to the many that suffer in silence and have nowhere to turn when a family puts honour before their own flesh and blood.

On 2007, you wrote a very personal memoir called Shame. For those who didn’t read it, Shame tells the story of a young girl’s attempt to escape from a cruel, claustrophobic and oppressive world in which family honour mattered more than anything. When was the concept “honour” and “dishonour” brought to you for the first time at your family home?

The concepts “honour” and “dishonour” were not formally introduced to you as a child in the form of a book but they were taught through parenting and what we as children saw around us.  It was part of everyday life and as you grew up, for me from the age of 7 you learnt the rules of engagement within the family. This was to be what you could and could not do as a girl, what behaviours were deemed shameful and honourable.  Therefore, you learnt this through how you behaved, it was a form of conditioning and I would as far to say, a form of grooming.  The important thing is that by the time you entered into your adolescence you also were aware of the fears if you behaved dishonourably and how you could place yourself at risk if you went against the families honour system.  So, by the age of 12, I understood that my honour was something I had to protect because I had the power to dishonour and honour my family and if I did not confirm I would be punished or even married off sooner!

How did you internalise everything that happened between you and your family after you ran away from home?

I was a young woman with very little experience of life and very naïve.  I missed my family and their ability to emotionally blackmail me and exert pressure on me which caused me to internalise guilt and shame. This led to depression and experiencing a range of emotions that led to attempted suicides.  I was desperate to connect with my family for them to see and hear my point of view but each time I tried to make contact I would be reminded of how I was now dead in their eyes and cast aside.  It took many years for me to finally accept that fact that I was disowned but this acceptance for me was the first step to my overall healing.  You cannot force someone to love you, not even a mother, father or any other family member and I stopped making excuses to myself for what was their abusive behaviour.  Today, I can honestly say that I have been disowned for 37 years (as have my children) and I have not expectations of them and life is peaceful and happier than ever.

As an adolescent growing up in England, what were the rules established by your family that had a big impact on you?

The greatest impact was realising how as a young woman I did not have the same rights and freedoms as my brother and the other men around me in the community. That as women we were second class citizens, even noticing things like the women walking ten steps behind the men and how we would be in the kitchen and men would be served upon etc.  The fact that we were born in Britain and being deprived of our independence, equal rights and the right to choose who and if wished to marry in the future, for me had the greatest impact.

What did it mean to you to write such a personal book like Shame?

It meant many things to me but above all, it was about breaking the silence and that of many others who I knew were just like me.  It was incredibly cathartic as it enabled me to unearth much of what I had been keeping inside but for the greater good. It also meant opening myself up to criticism from others, especially from within my community and family as this was when the threats and intimidation towards me increased.  However, I have no regrets as I understand how when you are prepared to raise your head above the parapet in truth, you have to prepare for possible battle.

In the House of Lords, your book “Shame” was described as a “political weapon”, in what ways do you think it can trigger that?

A “political weapon” from my point of view is something that has the power to create greater changes.  I believe my testimony created a greater dialogue and many more survivors followed that increased debate and this continues to this day.

Since the beginning, what was your main mission, vision and values with Karma Nirvana?

My mission hasn’t changed in 25 years, this was to increase reporting, reduce isolation and save lives.  The vision was to break the silences of the many thousands silenced by honour abuses and forced marriages and to create legislation and services for victims.  The values of sheer determination and to speak about the issues with conviction, truths and commitment drives Karma Nirvana.

What methodologies or tools do you provide to help women and girls to escape from forced marriage or honour-based abuse?

The importance of sharing and hearing the testimonies of survivors has and continues to be fundamental to Karma Nirvana’s work.  This informs the gaps in service provision for victims and leads to the services and campaigns.  The importance of emotional and practical support through the national helpline enables women to understand and own their options, including leaving.  The ability to see beyond their circumstances by hearing survivor stories is why I developed the Survivor Website.  The campaigning for legislation to protect victims and some who remain at home but with specific Forced Marriage Protection Orders in place and the right and effective support and professional responses.

What other educational methods and services did you develop to help or train women that have lived any of those traumatic situations?

The development of the Survivor Ambassador Programme has led to the engagement of survivors as volunteers which enables them to meet others just like them.  It also enables them to train in this area of work to increase their prospects and also enable Karma Nirvana to act as a reference.  The recent Survivor Ambassador Empowerment Programme created a space for survivors to explore several strategies in their journeys to enable them to release their goal and aspirations. This has led many to go onto college, university and securing jobs in the statutory and voluntary sector. Most of all enabled them to reduce their isolation and believe in themselves which is a tool we all must learn to overcome life events.

When did you establish the honour network helpline? How many calls has it received until today?

The helpline was established in my front room in 1993 and after years of campaigning that government recognise it as a national service, it became a government-funded helpline in 2008.  This was when Karma Nirvana also started to support men and since the helplines inception, it has received over 68,000 calls for service.  These calls include men, women, children and concerned professionals and friends.

What’s the journey from the moment that a victim calls at your helpline until Karma Nirvana provides supports? And also, how can victims ensure that they aren’t tracked down by their abusive relatives or husbands?

The first thing to say is that the helpline is confidential and Karma Nirvana never engages with family members.  When you call the helpline, you are in the hands of call handlers that understand honour abuse, forced marriages and the pressures and risks faced by victims.  There is a range of options available to the victim to ensure their safety including from being tracked down.  The need to reduce risk from the moment a victim calls is what Karma Nirvana do and they will offer guidance in response to what is being presented. The important thing to know is that there is so much support today compared to when I was 16, so pick up the phone and find out your options.  Karma Nirvana never judge and will always ensure you are listened to and that you understand the decision is yours.

Who is the main team that forms Karma Nirvana and what are their roles?

The team consists of and several people that make up the helpline with call handlers, supervisors and managers that act operationally and a board of trustees.  This included ahead of the helpline, operations manager and of course the person that is now leading the charity Natasha Rattu the new Executive Director. The team also consist of outreach workers, trainers and volunteers. I understand they are currently recruiting so the team is expanding into new areas, but look out for the role of Community Champions if you are interested in becoming a volunteer.

Was it difficult to get contributors and investors to support your foundation? How did you approach them?

In the first seven years of Karma Nirvana, I had very little funding and all my contributions were as a volunteer. It was difficult as the issue was unheard of and we had very little community support. As you begin to establish the issue with conviction and hold others to account you begin to find the support. As with all charities, you apply to trusts and foundations and the key thing is that you can demonstrate the real impact you make and this was always a strength for Karma Nirvana.  I ensured the helpline was government funded by the government before I left in 2018, but I know this will be a continuous battle for Karma Nirvana but the key thing is that they make a remarkable difference to the lives of many and this is something I believe funders want to be evidenced and want to hear about it.

What was the most the moment you realised that you “lived” with and founded the phenomenon that is Karma Nirvana?

Interestingly, the question has ‘lived with Karma Nirvana’ within it and this has made me smile, as it was part of my life and that of my children.  They would always remark with a smile of how our family consisted of 5 people, not 4, some, two girls, boy and Karma Nirvana.  This is true as sure enough, KN would be at the dinner table, survivors as would be invited at Christmas. The most remarkable moment for me will always be when the helpline went from receiving no calls over one year and a few over three years, but I always believed victims were out there so I did not lose faith.  Then it happened we went from few to hundreds to thousands, the fact that Karma Nirvana has made such an impact increasing reporting and reducing the isolation of many will always be the most remarkable moment to me.

Are there any future projects or plans that you can tell us about?

Well as you know I stepped down as CEO after 25 years of Karma Nirvana last year.  The charity is going from strength to strength and it is time for me to take a new path and I believe this will find me.  I need to continue making a difference this is clear to me, there is so much to do in our world for all to achieve their fullest potential.  I wish to be part of this vision but in a new way.  I am currently writing my fourth book and exploring developing the book ‘Shame’ into a film, so watch this space.

And last but not least, what’s your opinion about how women are treated across the world? What are the main things that you would tell the world that need to change?

The fight for the equality of women must continue as it remains the case that we are still fighting this fight.  I wish for younger women to own their power and how they can achieve all that they aspire, just as good as any man. I believe the ME2 campaign was a fight for both men and women, and men must join the fight for gender equality.  I came out as someone that sexually harassed by a member of the House of Lords as I felt that I had responsibility for women.  I had all the fears of any victim even though I am meant to be this strong campaigner, and I kept my silence for 12 years.  It is time for us to stop turning a blind eye and to take responsibility even if it means doing so as a whistleblower because things will only change if we are prepared to change ourselves and sometimes this means making ourselves uncomfortable in the search for truth and greater equality.

Alhambra Women’s Network 




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