Karma Nirvana’s two staff and most of its 18 volunteers are survivors of forced marriage and honourbased violence. Project founder and director Jasvinder Sanghera wants the voices of victims “to be heard” and to “shape policy”.
An astute campaigner and powerful speaker, she has forged links with the police, Crown Prosecution Service, local authorities, judges and magistrates. Sanghera is working on a PhD on honour violence and her memoir Shame will be published in 2007.
Now 41, Sanghera ran away from home at 15 after being shown a photograph of a man she had never met and told he was to be her husband. Her sister Robina committed suicide at 24 by setting herself on fire, rather than leave a violent relationship.
Karma Nirvana young persons’ project worker Shazia Qayum, 26, was forced into marriage and, aged 17, was escorted from her marital home at 3am by the police after phoning them to help her escape.
Both women are shunned by their families and speak longingly of their intense desire to be reunited and of the deep pain at being rejected by their parents as teenagers.
“My sisters still cross the road when they see me. But I live in hope I will be reconciled with my family,” says Sanghera.
When Qayum first came to Karma Nirvana for help she was withdrawn, with a cap pulled down to avoid eye contact. She hasn’t seen her family since she was 17 and lived in refuges for five years but now has a flat.
She says: “My best friend was killed by her father in the name of family honour because she truanted from school.”
Assisting victims of forced marriage and honour violence is a dangerous job. Karma Nirvana staff and volunteers face violence
from within their own community, including death threats from men serving time in prison. The project’s windows have been smeared with human excrement. Fathers seeking runaway daughters leave angry messages on the project’s helpline.
“People accuse me of stereotyping Asian people but they are in denial about what goes on,” says Sanghera.
Karma Nirvana receives 350 calls for help a month from around the UK. The project runs a drop-in and offers specialist support and advocacy, including preparation for court cases, and refers victims to refuges. A national network for survivors will be launched soon and work with young men will start next year.
The aim is for everyone involved with children to be well informed. As Shazia Qayum says: “Professionals must realise there may be only one chance to save a life.”