Robert Burns Humanitarian Award winner

RBHA 2019 winner Jasvinder Sanghera
RBHA 2019 winner Jasvinder Sanghera

A British human rights activist who escaped a forced marriage and set up a dedicated charity to help victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage, won the 2019 Robert Burns Humanitarian Award.

Campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera was presented with the award at an intimate ceremony in Burns Cottage, where Robert Burns was born 260 years ago.

Part of the Burns an’a’that! Festival 2019 and Burns 260 celebrations, the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award (RBHA) is supported by South Ayrshire Council and Scotland’s Winter Festivals – a programme of events funded by the Scottish Government and managed by EventScotland.

The award recognises courage, commitment, inspiration and hands-on humanitarian efforts from people of any nationality, race, age or gender.

Jasvinder’s story was deemed by the award judges to exemplify the values that Burns himself stood for in terms of humanity, equality and freedom for all.

Born in Derby, Jasvinder’s humanitarian journey began when she escaped a forced marriage by running away from home at the age of 16 – only to find herself disowned by her family.

Her four older sisters were taken individually to India to enter forced marriages and it was after one of her sisters committed suicide to escape the domestic abuse of her marriage that Jasvinder decided to found the charity Karma Nirvana which operates a national helpline to support victims in immediate danger and currently receives around 800 calls per month. As well as supporting victims, it also works to inform and educate the professionals who will encounter victims too. This includes training and development for the likes of the police, NHS and social services, as well as in schools.

Jasvinder was instrumental in ensuring that the UK police are required to improve their understanding of honour-based abuse and forced marriage by inspections conducted by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.

Jasvinder is regarded as an expert advisor to the courts in matters of child, civil and criminal proceedings and the charity, which is based in Leeds, also acts as expert witnesses in court, raises awareness at events nationally and internationally, and lobbies government.

Jasvinder’s efforts over a decade of lobbying government and campaigning were pivotal in creating a new law that made forced marriage a criminal offence in the UK. The legislation has now been in place for five years and this had led the way for the present consultation into the mandatory reporting of forced marriages.

Chair of the RBHA Judging Panel and leader of South Ayrshire Council, Councillor Douglas Campbell, said Jasvinder stood out as an exemplar humanitarian, putting others first and making a difference. He added: “Jasvinder has spent more than 25 years standing up for others and making sure they don’t have to go through what she and her family did. She has taken what was a hugely traumatic experience and turned it into a real force for good and a force for change.

“This is most evident in her continuous efforts to help raise awareness and understanding of honour-based abused and forced marriage to influence policy, practice and legislation, creating a long-lasting legacy that will help improve lives forever.

“And that work continues for her every day. For example, there was considerable coverage recently of her speaking out against the fact that British victims of forced marriages are made to pay the Foreign Office for the cost of being rescued.

“I have no doubt she will continue to challenge and question this practice with her determination and drive until something is done about it – and I wish her every success.

“Jasvinder is an amazing example of Burns’ humanitarian values in action and I have no doubt he would consider her to be a very worthy winner to follow in his footsteps.”

Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, Ben Macpherson MSP, presented Jasvinder with her award. He added: “I am proud and honoured to announce that the winner of the 2019 Robert Burns Humanitarian Award is Jasvinder Sanghera CBE.

“Now one of the highlights of Scotland’s Winter Festivals programme, since 2002 the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award has recognised the dedication, selflessness and sacrifice of inspirational people from near and far.

“Burns’ life was short but his legacy spans centuries – a man whose poems and songs celebrate the very essence of the human condition. A writer whose work gave voice to the common man, captured the spirit of the Scottish nation, and elegantly articulated Scotland’s deep commitment to both humanitarianism and internationalism.

As well as the RBHA 2019 title, Jasvinder receives the equivalent of 1759 guineas (approximately £1,800) – a sum which signifies the year of the Bard’s birth and the coinage then in circulation.