Born and brought up in a Sikh family in Derby, England, with seven sisters and a brother, Jasvinder Sanghera grew up in silent environs where speaking outside the family or community was considered as dishonoring. In order to behave properly and not to shame the family, they were always watched, monitored, and controlled. Having no freedom as an individual was something they grew up with.
At a very tender age, Jasvinder saw her sisters been taken out of the British schools, one by one, at the age of 15 and forcefully married off to someone who they had met only in photographs. Her sisters became wives, went to India, left their education, and nobody ever questioned their absence. They were physically and psychologically abused while her brother had all the freedom — from choosing a person he wanted to marry, to expressing what he wanted.
On one such day after coming back from school, her mother showed her a picture of a man, and as a 14-year old, Jasvinder learnt that she had already been ‘promised’ to him at the age of eight. Being expected to contemplate marriage, Jasvinder refused to marry a man who was much older than her and was called ‘a different child as he was born upside down’. None of her elder sisters protested when similar thing happened to them. She was allowed to go back to school but the pressure intensified when she turned 15.
Jasvinder’s family started preparing for her wedding. When she protested, they forced her out of school and locked her inside a room until she agreed to get married. She was not allowed to even go to the toilet and food was brought to her inside the room. She was brought up to believe that the honor of the family is in her hands. In the end, Jasvinder agreed to the marriage to plan her escape.
In the final year of school, at the age of 16, Jasvinder ran 150 miles away from home to be safe. Her parents reported her missing to the police and after being found out by a police officer, she pleaded him not to send her back home. She was asked to phone home and tell her parents that she was safe and well. On call, her mother told her to get married to that stranger; otherwise she will be considered dead in their eyes. Given the choice, Jasvinder chose to stay outside home as a disowned child.
She had a secret relationship with her elder sister Robina, who suffered a horrible marriage. She was beaten up regularly, abused mentally, and physically. When Jasvinder asked Robina to leave her husband and stay with her, she refused as Jasvinder was unanswerable to people after being disowned. She said “you don’t have to care about family’s honor.
Jasvinder begged her sister to speak to her parents, and when she finally did, the families met and the decision was made. She was asked to go back to her perpetrators. At the age of 24, Robina committed suicide by setting herself on fire. What surprised Jasvinder was her family’s response to her sister’s death. They said, “It was better for her to take her life and not dishonor the family by leaving her husband.”
That was the turning point in her life. As a result, Jasvinder started the charity ‘Karma Nirvana’, which helps men and women affected by honor-based abuse and forced marriage. She established a helpline in 2008 funded by the government, which has received 30,000 calls till date from the UK alone. The charity has made forced marriage a criminal offence, helps refuge and plan escapes.
Today, Jasvinder is a proud mother of three children. Her daughter Natasha married an Indian boy whom she met in college. Jasvinder was worried because she did not want her daughter to marry an Asian boy. The fact that she was disowned and ran from home made her think that her daughter will have to suffer because of that. But her fears were completely unfounded when she met this Indian family who did completely opposite of what her family did.
Jasvinder is a true hero. She eventually learnt to face her fears- from beating herself up every day for what her family did, to accepting that she was not the bad person and the perpetrator and forgiving them. Through Karma Nirvana, she encourages people to break their silence and makes them believe that even without their families there is a world outside to help them.
Today, she is a grandmother. Her elder daughter Natasha is expecting her second child. Jasvinder is a proud and happy woman. She knows that her family is never going to inherit the legacy of abuse because of one decision she made when she was 16.