By Loretta Bailey with contributions from Adonis Huggins – FOCUS
As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to plague almost every single country in the world, the issue of domestic violence is becoming a cause for concern among global leaders including in Canada. According to reports, domestic abuse cases are on the rise as women’s shelters and hotlines grapple with the influx of calls being received by individuals in precarious situations. Many believe that this increase is the result of pandemic associated factors such as financial insecurity, stress and uncertainty leading to increased aggression in the home. Domestic violence also increases whenever members of a household are obliged to spend long periods of time together. This is often because abusers are able to control many more aspects of their victim’s daily life and families are socially isolated in their homes.
Among immigrant and refugee communities in Canada, the problem of domestic violence is compounded by additional vulnerabilities, including a woman’s lack of proficiency in English or French, challenges understanding and navigating available resources and supports, problems of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, and issues of sponsorship preventing women from leaving an abuser.
We reached out to domestic abuse survivor turned advocate Samra Zafar, who is an author of A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose. According to Samra Zafar, each year over 12 million girls under the age of 18 are forced into child marriages. Many regions and countries practice child marriages but it is most common in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and many parts of Africa. Even in the United States and Canada, child marriages are legal. In Canada the federal Civic Marriage Act was amended in 2015 to permit marriage as young as 16, if they have their parents’ consent. Samra believes that cultural practices and traditions should not trump human rights, and child marriages under the age of 18 years should stop. Samra shared her ordeal as a child bride and an abuse survivor.
Born in Pakistan, Samra Zafar was a teen bride who was, at her parent’s insistence, married off at the tender age of 17 to a man much older than her, who she knew nothing about. Shortly after getting married, Zafar migrated to Canada with her new husband. Samra was terrified. She had no friends or family in Canada and it was a very different environment from the country she grew up in. She had no idea how things are done in Canada. Her only dream was being able to go to school but she was forced to stay home. Within a matter of months, Samra went from being a confident and ambitious teenage girl to living in a strange country as a wife, a daughter-in-law and soon to be mother. Samra lost all independence and agency over her life. The emotional abuse, Samra says, began almost at day one. The physical abuse began with one slap. Then it began increasing incrementally and escalating over the years. Samra didn’t even know this was abuse. It was just something she accepted as part of their marriage.
Initially, Samra had contact with her family back in Pakistan and began reaching out for support. Soon after she was restricted from doing so and told that she shouldn’t be talking to her family anymore because her husband’s family was her family! Although Samra considered leaving her husband in those early years, she had no work experience or education, and had a young daughter and was completely dependent on her husband financially. Samra also did not have any friends or anywhere to go to. Other barriers like social stigma and the feelings of dishonouring her family in Pakistan were also present. According to Samra, there was a lot of pressure to stay and conform and “be a good wife.” – someone who tolerates abuse, is quiet, is submissive and protects the family’s honour.
With little or no contact with the outside world, Samra Zafar suffered in silence. However, after enduring twelve years of an abusive marriage, Samra began taking a weekly university course and accessing the campus personal counseling services. There she learned that what was happening to her was abuse and that there were resources and support available to her. She also learned that the underlying threat of losing her children was not real. With that knowledge came power. Soon after going to counselling, Samra left her marriage. At the time her daughters were nine and four years old. Samra regrets not leaving sooner. By the time her older daughter was a teenager she started showing a lot of signs of distress and trauma. Samra tells us that sometimes women stay in abusive relationships for the “sake” of the children. Instead women should leave abusive marriage for the sake of their children, says Samra. Children, Samra argues, “don’t need a two parent family; they need a family where there is love, support and respect. And if that is not happening, it is very damaging to them.”