Summer is a dangerous time for those at risk of forced marriage
Jasvinder Sanghera has long campaigned against forced marriage but, she says, it is still widespread – and thousands of girls will not return to the UK after the summer holidays
guardian.co.uk, 4 August 2011
Rolling hills, stone cottages and a pub where customers are greeted by name – the Yorkshire village that Jasvinder Sanghera now calls home is a chocolate-box vision of England. It may not be the obvious place to find a woman who campaigns against forced marriage, but it doesn't take a psychologist to see why it suits her perfectly.
Brought up in a close-knit Sikh community in Derby, Sanghera watched as her four older sisters were taken to India, one by one, to wed men they had never met, each becoming trapped in a violent marriage. At 15 she ran away to escape the same fate; only to be disowned so completely by her family that her mother told her she considered her dead. Years later, after one sister killed herself to escape domestic abuse, she set up the charity Karma Nirvana to help smash the culture of silence around forced marriage. It is a story she tells often – in her books, on TV, to police and social workers, and to the scared young women and men who ring her helpline.
She has faced public abuse and even death threats in her bid to expose the rigid system of family "honour" that is at the root of such marriages. So it is not surprising she has chosen to live in such a quiet retreat – or that she asks me not to give its name.
Unsurprisingly, she has a complicated relationship with the Indian heritage and community that defined her childhood. "One of the things I did as a coping mechanism," she says, "was to detach myself from my culture. And because there was no one with whom to share the Asian food, the saris, the music – it was painful. I used to say to my daughter Natasha, 'Never go out with an Asian boy', because what Asian family will accept [her] mother – [who] ran away from home?"
Yet in Shame Travels, the 45-year-old activist's latest book, her prediction is turned on its head when Natasha gets engaged to a Sikh whose mother welcomes them with open arms.
"Here was an Asian family who have encouraged their children to be independent, to respect different values. I have never seen that before," she says. The warm relationship sparked a journey to India to seek out a long-lost half-sister whom Sanghera had been banned from visiting in case the "dishonour" she had brought on her family in England infected her. Her sister was thrilled to see her, supportive of her decisions and happily agreed to attend Natasha's wedding to make up for all the family members who turn their faces away when they see her.
"It was hard for me to reconcile my [Asian heritage]," Sanghera explains, "but I feel like now I have. This book, for me, is almost like the final journey." As if to underline this point I notice that, despite her conversion to Christianity, glinting beneath her sleeve is a kara, the steel bracelet that is not just a mark of identity for Sikhs, but a reminder to behave with honour.
Sanghera's campaign to expose the rapes, domestic violence, and even honour killings and suicides that can result from forced marriages has garnered political success, while her 2007 autobiography, Shame, catapulted the issue into the media spotlight.
The fluency with which she reels off statistics hints at the thousands of lectures and talks she has given. Yet when I ask if all this exposure means things are getting better, she insists the scale and complexity of forced marriages – and "honour killings" to which they are intimately linked – is still not recognised. The 500 or more calls a month to Karma Nirvana and the 400 survivors of forced marriage rescued and repatriated by the Foreign Office's Forced Marriage Unit every year is just "the tip of the iceberg", she says.
Because the average victims are girls aged 14 to 19, she says summer holidays are "the most dangerous time. There will be thousands of girls who don't come back in September." The last call she took to the helpline brought this into sharp relief. The caller was a terrified 14-year-old from the north of England, who, "is always in conflict with her family because she wants to see her friends at the weekend and they don't let her, so they said they will 'sort her out' in the same way they sorted her sister out". Her sister was taken out of school and sent to a village in Pakistan for two years to be "rehabilitated", then married and brought home.
When asked to give evidence to the home affairs select committee on forced marriage in May, Sanghera took with her a British-born survivor whose mother was a GP and father a wealthy businessman. "I wanted people to know it's not only uneducated people who do this. She was forced to marry at 16. Her parents took her to Pakistan and left her there." After being repeatedly raped by her new husband she became pregnant and at 17 was allowed to come back to the UK to sponsor her husband's application for a British visa. When she begged her mother for help and complained her husband was beating her, Sanghera says she was told: "This is your duty. If you have to die in that marriage, you die."
The girl ran away, but was tracked down by a family friend. "One day this guy came up to her – he was her father's friend," says Sanghera. "When she refused to return home with him, the man told her she had dishonoured her family and stabbed her repeatedly in the stomach, killing her child."
Survivors such as this are often let down by the authorities, Sanghera says. "Often professionals will look at them with sheer disbelief." Others are simply unaware of the powers they have to protect victims; at one of the charity's roadshows (held for agencies such as the police and social workers) 75% of attendees had never heard of the Forced Marriage Act. This allows courts to issue orders that can prevent families from taking victims abroad, forcing them to hand over passports, or reveal the victim's whereabouts.
Between November 2008 and February 2011, more than 250 orders were made, according to Sanghera (more than half to protect those under 16, and some for children as young as eight). Yet few of these are monitored, she says, and breaches are not dealt with seriously. So far there has only been one imprisonment. All other breaches have been dealt with by community orders or fines, including those involving threats to kill.
In May, the home affairs select committee advised that forced marriage should become a criminal offence. And when critics complain that few survivors will be willing to prosecute their families, Sanghera points to the leaps made in prosecuting domestic violence, and suggests victimless prosecutions – when the case continues even if a complaint is withdrawn. "The girls will only [report] it if we have a strong campaign, making victims realise they haven't done anything wrong. We have to empower them."
Those survivors who are strong enough, she encourages to follow her lead and tell their own stories, as a counter to the ostracism and silence they face in their communities, either as volunteers on the charity's helpline or at public talks.
"Statistics can be ignored, but what moves a fellow human being is that sitting opposite you is someone who has suffered abuse by the person or people who are supposed to love them the most." Some argue that such narratives turn forced marriage and "honour violence" into cultural issues, rather than another form of gender violence, and lead to ethnic minority communities being labelled as barbaric.
Sanghera admits this is a risk, but she is adamant it is the fault of the people who don't oppose "honour violence" strongly enough. "I'm tired of saying cultural acceptance does not mean this is acceptable. It's not part of my or anyone's culture to be abused."
• Shame Travels is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99.