March 22, 2012 | Violence Against Women

Woman of the Week: Jasvinder Sanghera

Jasvinder Sanghera cut ties with her family to fight against forced marriage.

By Anna Louie Sussman

NEW YORK -- What would it take to make you say goodbye to your family? To make you leave home, leave school, and sleep in parks and hostels?

For Jasvinder Sanghera, 45, it was the prospect of a forced marriage at age 14 to a stranger waiting for her in India. The sixth of seven daughters growing up in Derby, England, Sanghera had been promised to him since she was 8. Her family locked in her room when she refused to marry him. She knew she had to leave.

Today, her family refuses to speak to her.

“Even today, if I see my sisters, my family, they will cross the road and refuse to acknowledge me,” she told Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg. “All of a sudden, I had become the perpetrator. I was the one who had dishonored and betrayed them, and I had no family.”

But Sanghera has found a new community in Karma Nirvana, a non-profit service and advocacy organization she founded in 1994. After her sister Robina committed suicide to escape her abusive husband whom she had been forced to marry, Sanghera made ending this practice her life’s work.

Karma Nirvana offers an “Honor Network” helpline that potential victims or those in their community can call. Sanghera encourages teachers, social workers, and law enforcement officials to report when they suspect a minor is at risk of forced marriage, but she has told the Guardian newspaper that 42% of the 500 or so calls they receive a month are from minors themselves. With her urging, the United Kingdom’s Home Office and Foreign Office launched a Forced Marriage Unit in 2005. In 2010, it handled 1,700 cases, 86% of which involved females. She also lobbied hard for the 2007 Forced Marriage Act, which prevents families from confiscating their children’s passports, intimidating them into marriage, or taking them abroad for a forced marriage.

Sanghera has also written two novels, “Shame” and “Daughters of Shame,” both of which were bestsellers in the U.K., and expanded Karma Nirvana’s work to include victims of domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and sexual abuse. Her caseworkers are trained to handle these issues and connect callers to the appropriate agencies. But her work is hardly done: forced marriage has recently been recognized as a growing issue in the United States, according to a new report from the Tahirih Justice Center, and Sanghera has been looking for ways to collaborate with groups in the U.S.

In 2009, she told the Guardian that though she misses her family, she wouldn’t have followed any other path.

“I feel lonely at birthdays, but I'd do it all again.”

Anna Louie Sussman is writer and editor for Women in the World Foundation, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.