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Forced marriage in the UK

March 10, 2017
topic:Child rights
tags:#Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), #Karma Nirvana, #UK
located:United Kingdom
by:Federica Tedeschi
In 2015 the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) gave advice or support relating to a possible forced marriage in 1,220 cases, according to the Home Office.

Over the years the FMU, which was set in 2005 and works on the Government’s forced marriage policy to operate both inside the UK and overseas, has dealt with cases concerning more than 90 countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh and India were the three highest volume ones in 2015.

It has been Karma Nirvana to pave the way to widely available information on forced marriage. The charity, which was established in 1993, has in fact been playing a great role in improving the lives of victims of this crime over the last two decades.

I set the charity because of my sister’s death. Robina committed suicide after being repeatedly told that leaving her abusive husband would be shameful”, said Jasvinder Sanghera, CEO of Karma Nirvana.

And her journey has not been easy, either:

I am one of seven sisters born and raised in the UK and I watched the majority of them being taken out of school to go to India and marry men they had only seen the photograph of. They would disappear and when I turned 14 it was my turn: my mother showed me a picture of the man I was promised to when I was 8 years old and I said I did not want to marry a stranger. She was however very clear that I would have not dishonoured the family by saying no”.

There seemed to be with no way out and as a result of that experience, Jasvinder Sanghera’s family kept her at home until she agreed to get married. However, she only did so to plan her escape and run away.

I thought my family would understand my point but they didn’t and my mother made it clear that if I had not gone back and marry who they had said, I would have been a death in their house. I was 16 and did not expect that response, however I chose not to go back home and my family dishonoured me; they still don’t talk to me after 36 years”, stated Jasvinder Sanghera.

That very family did not even inform her about the sudden death of Robina, with whom she had secretly stayed in touch during those difficult years.

Ms Sanghera remembers going to the funeral and her family not even acknowledging her:

 “In their eyes I committed such a sin that there is no longer a place for me in the family”.

When she set up the charity nobody was talking about forced marriage:

I shared both my personal experience and Robina’s story for the first time. To get funding for my project I was asked to prove that forced marriage was an issue for Britain, therefore I was constantly looking for opportunities to speak about it at any platform and to talk to the police”.

She explained that it took a while for the project to take off, as she was raising two children at that time, and had gone back into education too. Sadly, people were no interested in a charity that gave voice to women who had experienced forced marriage and abuse until one day the helpline that she had set up in her living room went national (2008).

Karma Nirvana is now founded by the Government and its helpline receives an average of 750 calls a month, which is the tip of the iceberg, according to Ms. Sanghera:

We see many cases but there are thousands of victims at risk that we have to reach yet. So, before we can talk about a decrease in forced marriages, we really have to increase reporting. And this is the point the Government are making right now. I want to see the number of calls double or triple because every time Karma Nirvana team goes and talk in schools to raise awareness, we see a refer of three children reporting and this is a huge significant figure. We even received 11 referrals from a school in Birmingham we visited last December”.


The charity’s CEO explained how young people affected by forced marriage are generally conditioned from a very young age to believe that it is part of their religion, while no faith actually advocates this form of violence.

Karma Nirvana has dramatically impacted on raising awareness and increasing reporting of such abuse through its team of helpline members and campaigners and in 2014 the Government made forced marriage a criminal offence in the UK.

“On top of the helpline we have campaigners who have been working for over ten years to change the law and our work has been credited for the criminalisation of forced marriage. The campaign got the attention of the Prime Minister David Cameron, who said that my book, Shame, had turned his head on the issue by understanding how British citizens can be affected by these abuses and it was him who criminalised forced marriage”, stressed Ms Sanghera.

Whenever we raise the topic of forced marriage, women seem to bear the brunt of this rigmarole. What about the grooms-to-be, then?

At Karma Nirvana we support men and women altogether. I had one brother and understood from a very young age that men are very often allowed more freedom as the honour of the family is invested in a woman’s sexuality and in how she behaves. However, they are still victims of forced marriage and 18 per cent of people who contact our helpline are men. It is also interesting that many of them are gay men forced to get married by their families as their sexuality would be a huge cause of shame”, highlighted Jasvinder Sanghera.

Karma Nirvana has come a long way from no reporting during the Nineties to dealing with thousands of cases every year now. The charity has trained 25 police forces in Britain and is planning to involve more units.

Police forces have now seen an increase in the reporting of our work; we have a government forced marriage unit based in our home office and foreign office. The charity’s work has impacted on shifting and challenging people’s attitude, however our society is not dealing with this as a mainstream issue yet. When we talk about forced marriage many people still think it is part of somebody’s culture or their religion and that should be respected”, added Ms Sanghera.

The charity faces big challenges on a daily basis, including the fact that many professionals end up turning a blind eye not to appear racist. But this has an impact on forced marriage’s victims: if they are reporting the case and the police officer or the teacher goes and talk to the family, they have just spoken to the perpetrators. In those circumstances it is impossible to negotiate with relatives and parents and the victims’ biggest fear is to see their adviser talking to a member of the family.

Thinking about the future, Ms. Sanghera’s main focus is to continue creating awareness:

We mark 25 years next year, which is a huge achievement as we got here because of our perseverance and determination. However, we are on a journey and it is really important for the organisation to keep engaging with different people, especially the youngsters. I would like to see Karma Nirvana  becoming a centre of excellence for other people to learn from and not only in the UK. In fact, I would like to see the organisation expand internationally”.

Article written by:
Federica Tedeschi
United Kingdom
“I set the charity because of my sister’s death. Robina committed suicide after being repeatedly told that leaving her abusive husband would be shameful”, said Jasvinder Sanghera (on the right), CEO of Karma Nirvana.
"I would like to see Karma Nirvana becoming a centre of excellence for other people to learn from and not only in the UK. In fact, I would like to see the organisation expand internationally”.
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