We met an amazing woman the other night at Edelman. A force of nature. One of those people you hear speak and have to tell others about. You have to share the story you’ve heard because it’s made you so angry; a story so shocking and harrowing that you want to do something about it immediately. We invited Jasvinder Sanghera into Edelman to speak to GWEN – Edelman’s womens’ network – as part of our Inspiring Women series. She was definitely that.
Jasvinder Sanghera set up the charity Karma Nirvana in 1993 to help victims of forced marriage and honour based abuse and killings. Her very personal and powerful reasons for doing so became all too apparent as she recounted being shown the photograph of a stranger – a man who was destined to be her husband, when she was eight.
It can’t have come as a total surprise. As one of seven girls in the family she had watched her sisters disappear one by one to return to India and life with a stranger. She rebelled, ran away from home at the age of 15. Homeless and friendless she was rejected by her parents and has never spoken to them since.
But worse was to come. The catalyst for setting up Karma Nirvana came when her sister Robina, who she had secretly been in contact with, killed herself. Unable to face an abusive husband but under strict orders from her family not to ‘dishonour’ them by divorcing him, she set herself on fire.
“The terrible thing about honour abuse is that there are multiple perpetrators and they are the people closest to you” said Jasvinder. “A network of relatives will coerce you and sometimes resort to killing a child to erase them from the family rather than tolerate being dishonoured in the community.”
These killings are not well documented but a recent study identified at least 18 killings and 11 attempted killings in the UK in the last five years. But of course numbers are likely to be higher as communities close ranks around the issue.
Karma Nirvana’s helpline incredibly receives over 600 calls for help a month.
“Although the majority are from young girls we are seeing a huge increase in young gay men who are being pressurised in the same way,” said Jasvinder.
One of the saddest moments in her presentation was an image full of beautiful young faces – young women – all killed by their families before they had even had a chance to live and all because they cherished an ambition that to most us is a right that we don’t even think about.
Banaz Mahmod was 20 when she died. She had warned the police that she was under threat. She finally went back to the police with a list of the people they should suspect if she were to disappear. She did. The male members (cousins) of her family raped her, garrotted her and buried her body in a suitcase. And all because she was seen kissing her boyfriend in public.
There have been some milestones. Last year the government made forced marriage a crime and this year Karma Nirvana has campaigned to win cross party support for a day of memory which will take place on July 14th. That is the birthday of Shafilea Ahmed, who was suffocated by her parents in front of her siblings in 2003. She was 17 years old.
“When a family kills a woman over these issues,” says Jasvinder “their intention is to wipe her from history – which is why remembering them is so important.
Edelman’s Global Women’s Executive Network (GWEN) works to increase the presence of women leaders at the most senior levels of our firm and create an environment where women are supported to lead and succeed.