Cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable, says Jasvinder Sanghera, who has been working for the past 20 years to draw public attention to the issue of forced marriage and support its young victims.
As the CEO of Karma Nirvana, a British charity, Jasvinder Sanghera campaigns to raise awareness of forced marriage. The organization helps those whose families are pressuring them to wed against their will to find a way out.
Deutsche Welle: How did you get involved in the issue of forced marriage?
Jasvinder Sanghera: Karma Nirvana was born out of my personal experiences of being presented with a photo of a man when I was 14 years old by my mother. She said this was the person who I was going to marry and I was promised to him from the age of eight. I said no and as a result of that I was taken out of education until I agreed to the marriage. I ran away from home when I was 16 years old to make the point that I was not marrying this stranger. As a result of that my family disowned me. I have been disowned for 32 years. But the catalyst for it really was at the age of 24 years old, my sister, Robina, who was also forced to marry, committed suicide, she set herself on fire. I came out of hiding and decided to speak about my experiences and her experiences.
What was it like for you back then, coming out of hiding?
It became almost like a mission whereby I wanted to carry this message on to the world in that this is happening even though I was born in Britain. I wanted people to understand, even though you are born in a democracy, in a country whereby you have a right to freedom, education and independence, some of us don't.
How many UK-based young women are currently being forced into these marriages overseas?
It is difficult to estimate because it's hidden abuse. We know that victims do not report because of the fear of their families, and they are not aware of support services. If we look at the helpline that we operate, which is a national helpline that supports both men and women, currently we are receiving about 600 calls a month. Looking at the government's statistics, Britain's government has a forced marriage unit based in London who are currently repatriating over 300 British subjects back into the UK every year who have been forced into marriage or been at risk of marriage. A third of them are under the age of 17, the youngest case they dealt with was two, and their helpline receives thousands of calls every single year. In my opinion, there are hundreds of thousands of people at risk that we don't know about. What we all agree on is that we are dealing with the tip of the iceberg.
Why do forced marriages happen?
If I refer to my own personal experience, which is no different to the victim callers to the helpline, they happen because families are motivated to ensure that these marriages take place within their families. They have very strong links to India and Pakistan, whereby they want to maintain those cultural links. Families think they know best for their child. One of the motivations also is being able to come into the UK on a spousal visa.
Who is affected by it?
All the cases we deal with at Karma Nirvana are British-born subjects, 65 percent of them are within south Asian communities - Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and Hindu communities. The other percentages are a reflection of the communities in Britain, so we are seeing Kurdish, Iranian, Afghan, Somali communities. We are even now seeing white British women who marry into these systems, who have dual-heritage children who may become victims of forced marriages also.
How does it normally happen for the victims involved?
This happened to me, I am one of seven sisters, and I witnessed it happening to my sisters. In terms of our experiences it's the same in 2013 as it was 32 years ago. Basically you are almost conditioned and groomed from a very young age to live a way whereby you don't bring shame on to the family. One of the things we understand is that your marriage is going to be arranged for you and your parents will present it to you as: This is what we do, it's part of tradition, it is part of our culture, even religion. Some of our victims have been promised from birth, especially with first-cousin marriage.
What about those who say forced marriage is part of tradition, and that in a democratic state such traditions should be allowed to take place?
I have no issue whatsoever with the tradition of an arranged marriage for somebody who has the full and free consent to say yes or no. The person needs to be above the age of 16 and have the mental capacity to be able to make that choice. What I disagree with is where the consent has been removed, and it is clearly forced. Cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable. Perpetrators hide behind tradition and professionals fear treading on cultural toes, they fear being called a racist, and somehow they step back away from it. What we need to do is make it clear: There is a very clear distinction of what constitutes a forced marriage and an arranged marriage. One is tradition, the other is abuse.
What sort of practical advice do you give to the victims who ring you up?
We are first and foremost a listening ear for them. We never engage with their families at all, we give them that reassurance and they need that because you cannot attempt to mediate in these sorts of cases with family members. We can help them with escape plans, we can seek emergency accommodation, we can become their advocates, if they are under the age of 16 we can advocate for them to go into foster placements. The important thing is that we are getting them to a place of understanding that they don't have to go through with this; there is an option not to and a place of safety that we can facilitate and also to help them to rebuild their lives.
Jasvinder Sanghera is the founder and CEO of Karma Nirvana, a UK organization that supports victims of forced marriage and honor-based abuse.