Samra Zafar is a bestselling author, an award-winning international speaker and a human rights advocate. And today, we’re proud to introduce her as a Plan International Canada Celebrated Ambassador.
After escaping a decade of abuse living as a child bride in a forced marriage in Canada, and sharing her experiences and insights, Samra became a beacon of hope for many people facing exclusion, abuse, and gender-based violence.
Now she shares three truths about child marriage and how they relate to her story.
When I was 17, I was forced to marry to a man who was more than 10 years older than me. He lived in Canada, far away from my family and home in Pakistan. Being his wife meant packing up and moving across the world.
A Good Wife, is just one story amongst millions that shows the truths about child marriage.
1. Child marriage is dehumanizing
In the weeks leading up to Eid, the local markets were always filled with live sheep and goats. My family and other faithful would purchase an animal, bring it home to fatten it up for a while, and then slaughter it on Eid to honour Allah and prepare a feast. I had never thought much about the activity in the market, the way that people inspected a goat’s teeth or ran their hands through the thick fleece on a sheep. But now I thought I had a sense of what those poor animals must feel like – being poked and prodded and judged. Fatima’s parents didn’t appear to be the least bit interested in getting to know me. What they seemed to be looking for was an attractive, well-mannered broodmare.*
2. Child marriage is forced – even if a girl appears to be giving consent
It’s true that no one put a gun to my head to force me to marry. However, my marriage was by no means chosen through my free consent. As a child, I felt pressured to marry the man whose family had made my parents a decent offer. Part of the pressure came from the fact that child marriage had been largely normalized within my community.
When I told my friends that I had received a marriage proposal, they squealed with both excitement and jealousy. The other element of pressure came from my parents themselves – they told me marriage was the best decision for me. I trusted them, even though I was scared, and I didn’t want to let them down.
When my mother got off the phone, she came into my room, where I was sitting frozen in anticipation. “Congratulations! They like you! They want to set a date for the engagement.”
Fatima’s parents liked me. I had won a prize. A husband and a Canadian education. But the frisson of delight I felt when I first heard my mother on the phone had disappeared into a crest of panic and dread. I didn’t really want this. But how could I say no?
We went into the living room to tell my father. He was not as quiet as I was at the news. “No”, he said to my mother. “This is not the right time. Samra is too young. She needs to go to university first.”
“Zafar,” my mother shot back, “Samra has agreed to this already.”
“Really?” he asked, turning to me. “Samra, are you really sure?”
“Yes, she’s sure,” my mother insisted. “We’ve talked about this. She knows this is the best thing for her.” *
Although it may seem that a child is offered a choice to marry or not, the choice is never truly there. It’s simply an illusion of choice because the child is not capable of making that decision, and should never be put in that position. Child marriage is always forced marriage.
3. Child marriage often leads to domestic violence
Ahmed reached out and grabbed my wrist. He yanked me closer and began twisting my arm. His grip was so tight it felt as if he were trying to take my hand right off. Then, with his other hand, he reached for his glass. A wave of ice water hit my face. I gasped. And then I heard “Mommy!”
I looked over at Aisha, strapped into her high chair. Her arms were lifted into the air, reaching out to me. Her pink lips were trembling, her eyes filling with tears. Ahmed’s grip loosened, and I broke away.
Behind me, the tiled floor was wet from the water Ahmed had thrown. As I stepped back, my feet slid out from under me, and I crashed onto the floor. As I scrambled up, I saw the phone lying on the kitchen table. I grabbed it and ran upstairs to the bathroom.
Slamming the door behind me and quickly locking it, I sank onto the edge of the bathtub. My heart was pounding and my back was screaming in pain. I looked at the phone in my trembling hands and tapped 9-1-1. But before I hit the talk button I stopped, my fingers hovering in mid-air.
What would happen if I made that call? Where could I go? How could I support myself? *
In my case, I found a way out. I escaped the life I never chose and rebuilt my life, including attending university, graduating as a top student, and going on to pursue a career in banking. I’m proud of my journey, but I won’t stay silent.
Today, I’m honoured to be an Ambassador for Plan International Canada. By sharing my story, my goal is to break the silence on child marriage – for the millions of silences still waiting to be broken.
* Excerpts from A Good Wife by Samra Zafar.
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