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Women and girls’ advocate hopes damehood can ‘elevate my voice for greater good’

Jasvinder Sanghera has been awarded a damehood in the King’s Birthday Honours (Ian West/PA)
Jasvinder Sanghera has been awarded a damehood in the King’s Birthday Honours (Ian West/PA)

A campaigner against forced marriage and honour-based abuse said she is “deeply grateful” to have been awarded a damehood and hopes it can help her keep such issues to the fore on the international stage.

Jasvinder Sanghera, from Derby, was just 14 years old when she was faced with the prospect of a forced marriage, but defied her parents’ wishes by refusing and leaving home.

Ostracised by her family, she later founded the charity Karma Nirvana in 1993, described as the first specialist charity for victims and survivors of honour-based abuse in the UK.

She has been made a dame commander in the King’s Birthday Honours for services to the victims of child, forced marriage and honour-based abuse.

Dame Jasvinder said she had poured her “life, blood, sweat and tears” into the charity over more than two decades, and that it still receives around 1,000 calls a month to its helpline – which was first set up in her living room.

She left the charity – now run by her daughter – in 2018, but continues to speak out about an issue which remains close to her heart.

Of what she is most proud, she told the PA news agency: “It would be bringing to the fore an issue that was never talked about back in 1993 when I started it (the charity) and taking it to an international platform.”

She hailed the fact the legal age of marriage had been raised from 16 to 18, in an effort to better protect children from forced marriage.

The change, under the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act and which came into force in February 2023, means it is a crime to exploit vulnerable children by arranging for them to marry under any circumstances, whether or not force was used.

Founder of Karma Nirvana Jasvinder Sanghera was previously made a CBE for her work against honour-based abuse (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Founder of Karma Nirvana Jasvinder Sanghera was previously made a CBE for her work against honour-based abuse (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

On her honour, she said: “I’m deeply grateful for that because anything that will help elevate my voice for greater good is always welcomed.”

But she said she has paid a high price, in not having a relationship with her family for most of her life.

She told PA: “The cost to me has been the loss of my family. So, for me, receiving such an honour just gives me that feeling of ‘I am an integral person. I do have self-respect and self-worth’.

“Because my honour is their shame, that’s how I see it. Anything I achieve in their eyes is still not good enough because I said no to marrying a stranger and that caused huge shame and dishonour for a family who does not see integration as something that is acceptable.”

Dame Jasvinder said honest conversations on issues such as grooming and honour killings need to keep being had because “cultural acceptance doesn’t mean accepting the unacceptable”, as she warned people are often “too fearful to have that conversation”.

Of the perpetrators of such abuse, she said: “One of the things I will say is in terms of my space and the abuse that I have personally experienced, and also the thousands of victims and survivors I’ve represented or worked with or reached – the whole space of tradition, culture, and religion was used as an excuse to abuse us.”

Those who suspect wrongdoing must not be afraid to speak up, she said, adding: “How is it that the fear of offending, let’s say, or the fear of being called a racist trumps a safeguarding concern?

“When I went missing in my school, as I did, as did all my sisters, nobody was asking the question, and that’s still happening today. And you know, we have to have these conversations.”

She restated calls for a legal definition for honour-based abuse, “to help people to do the right assessments”.

In September last year, the Government rejected a call from the Women and Equalities Committee for this kind of abuse to be given a statutory definition in a similar way to domestic abuse.

The Government said it was “not clear that making the definition statutory would improve understanding of or the response to these crimes, however, we will continue to keep this under review”.