How Karma Nirvana-founder Jasvinder Sanghera fled a forced marriage aged 16 to become one of Yorkshire's most inspirational women
At just eight years old, Jasvinder Sanghera was already promised to an older man who she had never met before.
One day after school aged 14, her mother sat her down at their home in Derby and showed her a picture of the short-looking man around eight years her senior who it was decided she would marry.
Ms Sanghera refused, and fled to the North of England at just 16-years-old. She later went on to raise three children as a single mother and gain a first class honours degree, before setting up Leeds-based charity Karma Nirvana in 1993 to support other victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage.
In 2009, she was awarded a Pride of Britain Award and later was appointed CBE in the Queen's 2013 Birthday Honours.
"It took 25 years and I put all my pain into campaigning and advocating," said Ms Sanghera.
"The reason why Karma Nirvana was formed was because of my sister, who took her own life. She was the one who was forced to marry a stranger, the one who went missing from school.
"She set herself on fire and she died. I remember ringing home and I said to my mum, 'I'm coming home to mourn her and to go to the funeral', but I was told to stay away and not to show my face."
Ms Sanghera was cast out by her conservative Sikh family after escaping the arranged marriage and has not had proper contact with her mother and siblings since running away from home.
Now aged 55 and residing in North Yorkshire, Ms Sanghera’s story is well documented in the three books she has published, Shame, Daughters of Shame and Shame Travels –which former Prime Minister David Cameron hailed as a "political weapon".
She has been recently appointed to North Yorkshire's Domestic Abuse Independent Scrutiny Panel by Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan, is now working on her fourth book, Disowned.
But her story echoes those of hundreds of other girls and women in the UK who have experienced forced marriage and honour-based abuse, the only difference being many of those women’s voices have been silenced.
"The experience of growing up and going to school for me was very different to my peers, she said.
"Our lives were very much revolved around having to behave a certain way as girls; not to bring shame on the family. We were prevented from integrating, we were not allowed to wear make up or look at boys, and we understood that if we did any of these things, we would be punished.
"Even now, there will be girls being forced into marriages and there will be girls missing off our school rolls for that reason.
"I watched a lot of my sisters being taken out of school aged 15 to marry men that they had only met in photographs – they'd disappear one by one and nobody at school questioned their absences. They'd come back as somebody's wife and have rings on their fingers and nobody would say, 'where have you been for nine months?'
"This is also the attitude across the UK and if you look at Bradford and the demographics of Leeds, as well, we've got a lot of minority South Asian communities where these things are happening."
Home Office data released last month showed a drop in honour-based abuse incidents and forced marriages reported to police in the year ending March 2020 from 2015 when it began recording it, prompting concerns of a drop in victims’ confidence to come forward.
Karma Nirvana, now currently being run by Ms Sanghera's eldest daughter Natasha Rattu, also recently revealed that West Yorkshire was the worst-affected area in the country for reported child marriages.
Ms Sanghera also condemned police and safeguarding authorities' fears of being accused of racism when prosecuting criminals complicit in honour-based abuse.
She said: “There is the issue in this country whereby some professionals are still dealing with this as being ‘cultural’, and they look the other way. There is the fear of being called racist.
“I remember one call we received at Karma Nirvana from a police officer. He told our call handler, ‘I’m with this man from a minority community and he’s telling me he’s in a full-blown relationship with a 13 or 14-year-old girl, and that it’s part of his culture, so I just want to check if that was okay’.
“The handler had to tell this officer, ‘can we put aside all the cultural issues that you think are justifying this and look at the raft of possible offences?’
“The officer said, ‘oh if you put it like that, then’, and hung up."
Speaking directly to victims, Ms Sanghera issued a bold message to put themselves and their futures above what their families want for them.
"I say to them, 'say no'. Because my 55-year-old self now can say I did it for my kids," she said.
"I didn't know that at the time, but my children can have their freedom and independence in 21st-century Britain because of the choice my brave 16-year-old self made. Otherwise, the legacy would have continued."
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