Forced marriage survivor, activist and campaigner wins Burns Humanitarian Award in Bard's birthplace

 23 January 2019  |  

The winner and runners-up of RBHA 2019: Jasvinder (centre) with Denis and Umra

The winner and runners-up of RBHA 2019: Jasvinder (centre) with Denis and Umra

A British human rights activist who escaped a forced marriage, set up a dedicated charity to help victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage, and helped change the law to make forced marriage a crime has tonight (23 January) been named winner of a prestigious global award created in honour of the Scots Bard.

Campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera CBE was presented with the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award at an intimate ceremony in Burns Cottage, where Robert Burns was born almost exactly 260 years to the day.

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. It was after one of her sisters committed suicide to escape the domestic abuse of her marriage that Jasvinder decided to found Karma Nirvana – an award-winning charity that supports victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage.

Founded in 1993, the charity operates a national helpline to support victims in immediate danger and currently receives around 800 calls per month. Since its inception in 2008, it has received more than 78,000 calls for service.

Crucially, the charity doesn't just work to support the victims, it also works to inform and educate the professionals who will encounter victims too. This includes dedicated 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.

As well as a survivor, activist and campaigner, Jasvinder is an author, with her memoir Shame being described in the House of Lords as a 'political weapon' and novels Daughters of Shame and Shame Travels making it to The Sunday Times' bestseller lists.

Most recently, Jasvinder raised significant debates in The House of Lords by sharing her personal experience and being the first complainant of sexual harassment and bullying. This has led to numerous individuals reporting and an independent inquiry that will create greater future changes.

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.

Receiving her award, Jasvinder said: "I am overwhelmed to be awarded the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award 2019. To be associated with such an iconic figure is an honour.

"Robert Burns was, and continues to be, an inspiration to many. As an activist, I've followed the work of many social reformers and read about the many influenced by Robert Burns, including Frederick Douglas – a slave who went on to be one of the world's most famous abolitionist. The first book he read was by Robert Burns.  

"Burns' ability to empathise with the human condition makes him universally loved and his legacy is something I will ensure remains alive within my own work." 

Also recognised at the award ceremony were fellow RBHA finalists and runners-up Umra Omar and Dr Denis Rutovitz MBE.

Umra is the founder of Safari Doctors, which provides essential medicines and healthcare to people in remote parts of Kenya, improving health and wellbeing, transforming lives and creating communities. Thanks to Umra and her charity, there has been a rise in child immunisations, communicable diseases have halved, the number of expectant mothers attending antenatal appointments has doubled, and family planning has trebled. Speaking at the award ceremony, she said: "It's magical to be part of this and I am overwhelmed by the incredible warmth shown to me and humbled to be associated with Robert Burns. It has been an extraordinary event."

Denis is the founder of Edinburgh Direct Aid, which assists victims of natural disaster and war around the world, initially delivering aid convoys to Bosnia – often under sniper fire. Denis has personally raised thousands to help others, fundraising for his 90th birthday by running two 10k races to support refugee twin brothers through a three-year degree course at the Lebanese International University. Speaking at the award ceremony, he said: "I'm very proud to be nominated for this award, but really it's all about all the volunteers at Edinburgh Direct Aid who are out there making a difference every day for people across the world."

Councillor Campbell concluded: "Jasvinder, Umra and Denis are all fantastic examples of individuals who follow in Rabbie's footsteps, devote themselves to others and push the boundaries for social change. It was an honour to celebrate their achievements in the very place where Rabbie was born – almost exactly 260 years to the day – and I'm sure they will continue to live up to Burns' values every day and continue to transform lives for the better."

Find out more about the award – including previous winners – at

Find out more about the Burns an'a'that! Festival 2019 at