"more than ever we all need to stand together."
Polly Harrar is a British Asian activist and multi-award winner who founded the not-for-profit charity, The Sharan Project.
The project supports South Asian women who have been or are at risk of being ostracised due to harmful practices.
These include but are not limited to honour-based abuse, forced marriages, cultural conflict, and dowry violence.
Established in 2008, Polly created The Sharan Project because she realised these victims required long-term support in leading an independent life without fear.
Having left home when she was a young girl due to a ‘cultural conflict’, Polly has had first-hand experience with this type of vulnerability.
However, having persevered and remained dedicated to helping others, The Sharan Project is breaking down the barriers faced by Desi women.
Offering ongoing emotional support, housing advice, educational tools, and health services, the organisation is making immense strides.
With thirteen years of constant advocation, Polly is starting to see the true power that The Sharan Project has.
However, she does admit that the pain suffered from South Asian women is still severely overlooked.
Although to tackle this, The Sharan project has created and overlooked projects such as ‘Harnessing Change’ and ‘Right2Choose’.
These help South Asian women to learn and connect over their shared commonalities to uplift them and make them feel safer.
Impressively, Comic Relief funded The Sharan Project’s ‘Our Girl’ campaign in 2016. The movement raised awareness of forced marriage and the steps to take in preventing it at a national level.
Unsurprisingly, this was widely recognised and Polly was awarded the Points of Light Award by Prime Minister David Cameron in the same year.
Having such an impact within these communities is vital for cultural progress, something which Polly hopes to achieve.
DESIblitz spoke in-depth with Polly about The Sharan Project, the safety of Desi women, and her view of cultural ideologies.
What was the motivation behind creating The Sharan Project?
Having identified a gap in service provisions for South Asian Women, I could see that there was a lack of support for women who had left home and who needed guidance and support.
I spent years researching for services that provided long-term support for South Asian women and at the time found that none existed.
So, rather than waiting for one to be established, at great personal risk and using all of my life savings, I decided to set up The Sharan Project.
With the hope of helping just one person to know they are not alone.
The Sharan Project was established in 2008, with the aim to support South Asian women who have been disowned by their families and communities.
This is due to harmful practices such as forced marriage, honour-based abuse, dowry, and domestic abuse. The charity has been in operation for over thirteen years.
As a national registered charity, we respond to approximately 500 calls to our service each year.
We continue to support some of the most vulnerable members of our communities to rebuild their lives.
Can you detail the type of support you offer to South Asian women?
No day is ever the same and each call brings new challenges. So, it is always important to remember that every action has the potential to save a life or help rebuild a new one.
We provide a range of services to support South Asian women. These include access to our IDVA/ISVA/Client Advisors, undertake risk and needs assessments, advocate, and advice on key areas and make referrals.
We help clients identify the options and choices available to them so that they can make an informed decision as to what they want to do next.
“We also deliver training, workshops and campaigns.”
The Sharan Project also has projects to raise awareness and prevent harm.
This is to ensure statutory and non-statutory partners and stakeholders better understand the challenges and barriers our client’s face.
What kind of impact do you want the project to have?
The women who contact our service often have to adapt to situations that are not of their making and just need someone to believe in them.
They are highly resilient and strong. So, the impact I want to achieve is to empower them to be the best they can be.
I want them to know what happened to them was not their fault and does not define who they are or could be.
This is why we established the Employers Domestic Abuse Covenant (EDAC).
This encourages businesses to create work opportunities for women affected by abuse to enter, remain or re-enter the workplace.
We have a wide range of members and will be launching employability programmes in Birmingham, London, and across England.
This is to ensure women are able to gain confidence and skills to apply for sustainable roles that will improve their economic and life choices.
How has The Sharan Project impacted you personally?
There have been so many cases over the years that have left a lasting impact on me.
The children who have had to be removed from harm, the young people who have fled a forced marriage, and the women who have suffered in silence for years.
Also, the countless victims of honour-based abuse who have managed to escape with their lives.
This is the stark reality for so many women. But they motivate me to create a world where every woman and girl feels respected, valued, and safe.
Personally, for me, the greatest reward is seeing someone grow and develop and become the person she was always meant to be.
“I see it as a privilege and an honour to be part of their journey.”
They are the true ‘sheroes’. Although they may not always see it, they inspire me and so many others to do more and be more.
Like many other organisations, we are reliant on funding and donations – without that, we cannot do what we do.
As a lean charity with limited funds, we ensure donations go directly towards our services.
But it would be great to see further engagement from the communities we serve. Only then can we tackle the true scale of the problem.
What is your view on cultural ideologies surrounding women in South Asian communities?
It is an open secret that women from Asian backgrounds experience abuse and that they face additional barriers to accessing support.
We also know that men are predominately harming women, but we also know that women can be abusers too.
“Now more than ever we all need to stand together. Stop being a bystander or silent witness of harmful practices and call out the behaviour of abusers. Rather than blame the victim for being abused.”
We recognise men can also be victims. But, I make no apology for highlighting that women and girls are disproportionately being forced into non-consensual marriages.
They experience dowry and in-law violence, are physically, sexually, and emotionally abused, controlled and economically exploited.
The saddest thing is that this is happening. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has or will be affected.
Do you think enough is being done to help South Asian women in these scenarios?
Services like The Sharan Project continues to raise awareness and call out harmful practices.
But we know we cannot do this alone and we need everyone to play their part.
More still needs to be done to recognise the value of specialist grassroots organisations and sustainably fund these vital services.
We are working tirelessly to ensure Government, partners, and agencies recognise these voices and ensure specialist services are able to support women.
Have you faced any backlash from any communities?
As the first charity to provide long-term support for South Asian women who have been disowned in the UK, there was an initial backlash from some.
They felt we were simply encouraging women to leave home. This motivated me to educate and inform others that our role is to support those who have been abused.
we remind our critics that the harm had already been inflicted by families and communities and that this should be the focus of their discourse.
“We focus on community engagement and feel this is crucial.”
We need affected communities to recognise that these abuses are happening on their doorsteps and work together to end these practices.
What methods do you think South Asian communities can apply to help improve the safety of women?
The biggest change comes from communication. We need to talk about what is happening.
Stop ‘othering’ these issues as something that is happening elsewhere and to other communities and stand together to call out all forms of abuse.
We need to look out for each other but not through controlling or enforced surveillance.
But rather by educating boys and men, engaging in meaningful dialogue that makes it clear that gender-based abuse is never acceptable and to value women and girls in practice as well as in principle.
Ultimately, the best way to improve the safety of women is to stop harming women.
We have seen through headlines that women’s safety can affect any community, and this has created a ripple effect.
Where safety is being discussed with women and girls, discussions also need to be taken with boys and men.
What would be your ultimate goal with The Sharan Project?
I would love to see the need for The Sharan Project no longer exist. I would love to retire and close the charity.
But to do this we need for women to feel safe, be unharmed, able to make their own life choices. This is without fear or duress and be supported by their families, communities, and by society.
“In the meantime, I will continue to work towards creating sustainable long-term solutions.”
Working in partnership with others to ensure that together, we can end violence against women and girls.
It comes as no shock at how passionate and inspiring Polly speaks of The Sharan Project.
With such an abundance of attention given to the care of South Asian women, Polly has built a platform to finally tackle neglected issues.
This is encouraging to numerous women who are able to receive support that was not available before.
In addition, Polly’s charitable movements are extensively acknowledged, and rightly so.
In 2017, she was listed on the 350 Sikh Women’s List. She was then recognised by Amnesty International as a human rights defender in 2018.
She also went on to bag the ‘Best Charity Initiative’ at the British Indian Awards and London Asian Awards.
This emphasises how important and impactful The Sharan Project is, and how dedicated Polly remains to change lives.
Find out more about The Sharan Project and the services they provide here.