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The woman working with Bradford victims of forced marriage
Forced marriage and so-called honour killing are better-aired subjects in the media than probably anywhere else in society.
Testimony to that are the cuttings from newspapers and magazines across two double display boards in the West Yorkshire offices from where Jaswinder Sanghera campaigns.
A victim of forced marriage herself at the age of 16, she later had to bear the death of her sister Robina who, at 24, set fire to herself to escape the brutality of her marriage and the obduracy of her own family. She died from 90 per cent burns.
Jaswinder said: “My mother used to say to me, ‘The worst insult you can bring home is that you behave like a white woman’. I quote this in my book Shame. I was being taught to hate.
“People who call us for help have no concept of independence: the right of thought and freedom of expression, have been taken from them. The girls who ring our helpline have the same experiences that I had 32 years go.
“The extreme end of it is that they get murdered. The perpetrators of these killings think of themselves as being dishonoured.”
Jaswinder moved her Karma Nirvana charity, funded by the Ministry of Justice, from Derby to Bramley last summer. She said victim-reporting is low in West Yorkshire because fear of family reprisals keeps victims – male and female – isolated.
She is particularly exasperated by the reluctance of schools to take up these issues, recounting how one school in Halifax withdrew its girls from an afternoon talk because the headteacher deemed Jaswinder too controversial.
Asked to look at herself from the shoes of those who oppose her or disown her – including her parents – she said: “I am perceived as a threat by people who have a mindset, who operate in an honour code, who don’t want their children to integrate or have choices. They see me as a cultural threat.
“What I deem culturally unacceptable is when they abuse their child to maintain their own idea of what’s right and wrong. I have no problem with arranged marriages when the two people give their free and willing consent.
“But no child under 16 should be in an arranged marriage or any kind of marriage.
“Professionals know what’s happening, but have been disarmed when dealing with other communities. They fear getting it wrong and being called ‘racist’. The perpetrators of forced marriage and honour killings are gaining power through using the race card.”
Politicians certainly know. Former Keighley Labour MP Ann Cryer campaigned vigorously for legislation to outlaw forced marriage. Her successor, Conservative MP Kris Hopkins, told the T&A recently that the background to forced marriages was a “distraction”.
Jaswinder took up the issues of forced marriage and honour killings with David Cameron when he came to Bradford for a Shadow Cabinet meeting before the last General Election. He sent her a handwritten letter from which she quotes by heart: “As a country, I believe we are half-asleep to these issues.”
Lord Justice Wall, in what’s known as the B-M case, told the Court of Appeal in March 2009: “…these things have nothing to do with any concept of honour known to English law. They are, I repeat, acts of simply sordid, criminal behaviour… We should, accordingly, identify them as criminal acts and nothing else.”
Later this year, Jaswinder plans to take her message to 25 cities, launching what she calls her roadshow in Bradford. With her she’ll be taking a battery of facts: l The Home Office’s Forced Marriage Unit deals with around 5,000 calls for support a year.
l South Asian woman aged 16 to 24 are two to three times more likely to commit suicide or self-harm.
l At least 12 so-called honour killings take place every year, although the Crown Prosecution Service thinks there may be many more.
l The forced marriage unit deals with 400 repatriation cases a year. A third of the victims are under 16; some are aged eight and nine. Fifteen per cent of all cases are male.
Jaswinder said forced marriage should be treated with the same seriousness as domestic violence. She wants the Government, schools and the police to be far more proactive in preventing these crimes.
* A documentary featuring Jaswinder, Shame Travels, is to be screened by BBC1 on March 14, at 7.30pm. Karma Nirvana’s honour network helpline is 0800 5999247.