Leaders with lived experience: Jasvinder Sanghera, founder and former chief executive, Karma Nirvana

In the third of five pieces on leaders who used their experiences to set up voluntary organisations, Jude Habib speaks to someone who narrowly avoided a forced marriage

Jasvinder Sanghera
Jasvinder Sanghera

When Sanghera returned from school one day, her mother showed her a picture of a man to whom she had been promised as a bride. She was 14.

Sanghera turned down her family’s choice, wanting to carry on with her studies. Her parents didn’t accept her answer. She was taken out of school at 15 and held captive in her own home until she agreed to the marriage. Eventually she agreed to her family’s demands, purely to buy back her freedom, but then she fled. In her family’s eyes she had dishonoured and shamed them.

Then, when Sanghera was in her early 20s, her sister Robina, who had been in a forced marriage, took her own life. Feeling a strong sense of injustice, in 1993 Sanghera decided to share her experiences and develop a charity. She had no resources, so turned to her local council for voluntary service for support. The charity she set up, Karma Nirvana, is now one of the leading charities for those who have experienced honour-based abuse or forced marriage.

Sanghera has faced many challenges along the way. At first, few believed that forced marriages and honour-based abuse were issues in the UK: local authorities, the police and GP practices refused to acknowledge the extent of the problem. "It was a constant battle because I was a lone voice," says Sanghera. Some in the Asian community tried to deter her from running the project. To raise awareness of the charity’s work, she has had to think creatively. She trained as a keep-fit instructor and started to hold women-only classes in Indian and Pakistani community centres.

Slowly, she shared her experiences and, once she gained their trust, the women started sharing their own too. In this way she could demonstrate that this really was happening in the UK, which led her to set up a helpline staffed by volunteers. "You learn on your feet," she says. "I learnt by doing: nobody teaches you how to do fundraising applications."

For the first nine years, Sanghera wasn’t paid for her work, fitting it around her job and family life. Instead, she viewed Karma Nirvana as a way of healing her own pain and loss. Now the charity has an income of about £500,000 a year, some of which comes from the Home Office. It employs 12 people and has a team of national volunteers. Between 2008 and 2018, the helpline received 68,000 calls.

In 2014, the charity successfully campaigned for the law on forced marriage to be strengthened. If somebody today is affected by forced marriage and honour abuse they know where to call, there’s specialist risk assessment and there are laws to protect them.

After 25 years as chief executive, Sanghera stepped down late last year. What’s really important, she says, is that the founder recognises what they’ve achieved and allows new ideas and new thinkers to shape the charity. "There is now enough space there where other survivors are sharing their stories," she says. "It’s time for them to take the charity forward. You need to leave a strong legacy, and I believe I’ve done that".

Her advice to other lived-experience leaders is to get people to believe in your idea and own it the same way you do. Don’t allow disappointment to stop you from doing what you’re doing: use that as an opportunity
to speak even louder.

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