“I don’t accept ‘up-highness’, and I’m not afraid to tell it like it is” Women of the World Festival’s Jasvinder Sanghera on advocacy and the importance of telling uncomfortable truths

“For the first time in conjunction with the 2018 Commonwealth Games and its statewide cultural program, Festival 2018, WOW is bringing together women and girls from over 20 countries in the Commonwealth of Nations. This is your exclusive chance to join thought leaders, artists and women from around the world, including many First Nations women, at Brisbane Powerhouse over three incredible days as we celebrate our passion, cultures and diversity and talk about the real issues affecting women and girls at this landmark event.”

Hot Chicks with Big Brains: Please can you tell us about your charity, Karma Nirvana, and how it came to be?

Jasvinder Sanghera: I am one of seven sisters and have one brother. Most of us were born in England. We went to British schools and, over 38 years ago, I watched the majority of my sisters being taken out of education as children to marry strangers they had only seen in photographs. I was fourteen years old when my mother showed me a picture of the man I soon learned I had been promised to at the age of eight. I protested, wishing to continue my education and marry by choice. This led to my family taking me out of education and locking me in a room as a prisoner. I agreed to the marriage at the age of sixteen, but only to plan my escape. I ran away from home at that age in order to make a point: I was born in Britain, and as a woman I should have the right to an education and to marry out of choice.

My family gave me an ultimatum, which was either to come home and marry who they said, or to have independence but be seen as dead in their eyes. I chose the latter.

Since then I, my three children, and two grandchildren have been disowned, myself for over 38 years. Karma Nirvana was founded in 1993 based on my experiences and those of my sister, Robina. She tragically committed suicide by setting herself on fire, doing so as a result of a horrific marriage and a family who encouraged her to stay in it, as to leave the abuser would mean shaming the family.

HCwBB: Why did you choose to support both men and women with your charity?

JS: It was important to share the stories of those impacted by these abuses, and I quickly recognised that we came from all genders and walks of life, as both men and women contacted the charity. My vision was to support all affected, and it was only right to include men as victims and survivors, and to ensure that both stood up in the fight against these abuses which cross cultures, genders, and ethnicities.

HCwBB: You have many incredible achievements. Can you tell us about one or two you’re particularly proud of?

JS: When I started [my work] in 1993, no one would listen to what I had to say and I faced many more barriers than today! The first seven years were very much about convincing people that these abuses existed in Britain, and I was lucky if I could get even two people to hear what I had to say! There were no survivors and no reporting from victims—just me and my sisters’ experiences to share.

The most incredible achievement will always be taking this issue into the heart of politics, the public domain, and to the forefront of policy and practice. We now have professionals leading on the subject, police forces trained, a forced marriage criminal offence, and more!

This is great for a cause such as this, with a mission and so much more yet to do.

Secondly, it would have to be taking reporting from nil to developing a national helpline in 2008 that, since its inception, has received over 78,000 calls and counting. These are victims, survivors, and professionals who are now able to access support from those with a real understanding of the issues they deal with, in the face of what we now recognise as under reported abuse.

HCwBB: How do you handle dealing with the bureaucracy and “up-highness” of some policy makers when you, and the people you help, are the ones affected on a ground level?

JS: We speak to our truth, and engage with survivors by bringing them to the table and debate. I don’t accept “up-highness” and am not afraid to tell it as it is, because it is about victims and I take this advocacy very seriously. I am not here to be liked but to be heard, and sometimes that can mean speaking uncomfortable truths for others to hear. Do see my latest Ted Talk, and you will see exactly what I mean!

HCwBB: How did you first get involved with WOW Festival?

JS: The wonderful Jude Kelly, a doer and a woman I admire, invited me. Jude has supported the voices of those we also support, and so invited us to the WOW platform to share our experiences. This has led us to sharing many testimonies and profiling our ideas for the forthcoming play that will mark 25 years of our work this year.

HCwBB: What are you most looking forward to about this year’s WOW Festival?

JS: Listening and meeting so many wonderful women and activists, and being a part of the vision in the fight against the inequalities we face as women.

This is a movement that fills me with hope, and inspires me even more in my work and vision for the world.

HCwBB: Who inspires you and why?

JS: My children, who made it despite the odds—they have also been disowned [by their extended family]. My family set me up to fail, but I am still standing and sometimes (most of time) [my children] have become my purpose.

I remain inspired by survivors; the selflessness of how they share to bring about changes for others.

My partner, Jon, is a feminist, which is not only a support but also an inspiration to me!

HCwBB: What’s next for you?

JS: Being an activist, and always an activist. Watch this space!

The global phenomenon WOW (Women of the World) Festival is in Brisbane 6 – 8 April. Follow WOW on Facebook for updates and grab your tickets to the festival here!


Compiled and Edited by Emma Kate Lewis

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