Poised and passionate, Samra Zafar seems liberated telling her story of how she was forced into marrying a Canadian man 12 years her senior when she was just 16 years old.
The domestic abuse survivor and bestselling author of A Good Wife: Escaping the life I never chose stood in front of a packed banquet hall in Mississauga Friday morning and told the roughly 150 audience members that domestic abuse is not a women’s issue, but a human rights issue.
She said she believes that without coming forward and getting help, the cycle of abuse will continue.
“As a mother, the only regret I have is I wish I would have left sooner, “ the 37-year-old mother of two daughters told those attending the South Asian Advisory Council of the United Way of Greater Toronto breakfast, as she recalled the physical and emotional abuse she endured after moving to Canada from the United Arab Emirates where Zafar was born.
Zafar said she left her husband in 2011 while studying at the University of Toronto Mississauga Campus where she found support from her peers.
“I got out because I tried one more time. I left and went back five times. On average a woman leaves and goes back seven times before she finally leaves and sometimes she never leaves at all. The sixth time I didn’t go back because the community of support I had,” she said.
Zafar, a South Asian woman, said often women from her cultural background are too afraid to leave.
“It’s all based on fear because you’re afraid. ‘What’s going to happen to me? What are people going to say? Am I going to be shamed?’” she said, adding newcomers and immigrant women are also isolated and don’t know where to turn.
Zafar told the audience that one in three women in Canada have been affected by domestic abuse.
She said it’s important to educate our children by teaching them what a respectful relationship looks like and boys need to know that controlling a woman will not define you as a man.
Shalini Konanur, the CEO of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Toronto, said she sees clients who are suffering from family violence which includes financial abuse, threats, isolation, psychological and emotional abuse.
“Often times, those non-physical forms of abuse are significantly more because people feel they can get away with it easier. But the scars of those kinds of abuse are perhaps longer lasting,” she said.
Konanur encouraged women trying to flee abuse to seek out services and to start talking.
“Before people make that quick decision to leave. They should equip themselves with knowledge. They should equip themselves with some sort of emotional strength so they’re ready for the journey they’re about to take,” she said.
Konanur said shelter spaces and funding are lacking.
“We struggle daily when we have women who want to leave, trying to place them in a bed,” she said.
Daniele Zanotti, the president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Toronto, said gender-based violence is an unavoidable issue we can’t ignore.
“Samra was brought here as a story of survival and success. It’s something that lives in the GTA often behind three bedroom homes, two car garages and invisible to others, but something we can’t ignore as a society moving forward.”