If there’s one thing Samra Zafar regrets, it’s that her daughters grew up thinking it was normal for a husband to bar his wife from leaving the house, physically punish her when she disobeyed and threaten to harm her and then himself at random.
Zafar became a child bride at 16 years old when she was married off to a man 12 years her senior. Her parents pressured her to move to Canada from Abu Dhabi after the wedding. She didn’t want to, but she was a minor and they gave her no choice.
“It was a very abusive marriage from Day 1. I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house, meet friends, go to school, get an education, have a job … nothing,” Zafar says.
“My daughters were growing up, watching and learning that this (abuse) was normal.”
In 1989, the École Polytechnique massacre propelled the issue of violence against women to the fore of the Canadian conscious, putting women’s rights and feminism under the microscope. Yet, 30 years later, to be a woman in Canada still means living with risk — to live knowing that, on average, a woman is killed every other day, that once a week a woman is murdered by her partner and that one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives.
Education is one of the most powerful tools to help combat gender-based violence, and yet, most Canadian schools don’t teach baseline topics like what consent is, what constitutes a healthy relationship or even the names of intimate body parts.
In fact, euphemisms like “hoo-ha,” “fairy” or “flower” are so common that one survey from a gynecological charity in the U.K. found that 44 per cent of parents use them regularly when talking to their kids, while only one per cent use the word “vulva.”
Education was the key to escaping her abusive marriage, Zafar says.
Her escape started with babysitting, which allowed her to squirrel away small amounts of money at a time without tipping off her husband. When she had enough, Zafar enrolled in economics at the University of Toronto. It was there that she connected with a counsellor who helped her work up the courage she needed to leave.
Now, her children are teenagers, and she’s intensely committed to educating people about gender-based violence and what it means to be in a healthy relationship — because she firmly believes that learning those things is what saved her life.
“I didn’t want (my girls) to emulate that in their own life,” she says. “For that reason, I focus a lot on educating kids from a very young age about what healthy relationships look like.”
Had Zafar’s children been taught in school what domestic violence looks like or the appropriate ways in which spouses should treat one another, one of them might have been able to tell a trusted adult about the abuse happening at home, which could have helped Zafar escape much sooner.
Her priority now is to start conversations with her daughters about consent — how you give it, how you get it — and what abusive behaviours to look for.
“You should always be in a relationship with (someone) where you can be who you are, where you can be authentic, where you can speak your mind (without) fear about what that other person will think of you,” Zafar says.
“You should never feel like you have to change yourself and your views or the way you dress or the way you carry yourself because, otherwise, (they) won’t be your friend anymore.”
Zafar’s daughters are not the only children across Canada who aren’t taught about violence against women, trans and non-binary people, despite a growing body of research and expert voices saying they need to be.
It starts with a robust sex education curriculum.
Currently, there is no consistency around what children across the country are taught. While Ontario students begin learning about consent in Grade 1 and students in Grade 2 must demonstrate the ability to stand up for themselves and others, the B.C. curriculum leaves it up to individual teachers to raise consent when — and if — they choose to do so. In Quebec, consent isn’t brought up officially until high school.
“The curriculum across Canada is pretty uneven,” says Andrea Gunraj of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
“(We need) to make sure that there’s a higher standard … and not just leave it up to provincial or territorial governments to set those standards and expect it to be adequate across the nation.”
Until governments are held to that higher standard, Gunraj says provinces and territories are more likely to bow to the whims of parents — as evidenced by the Ontario sex education controversy. The government’s decision to update the sex education curriculum in 2015 infuriated some faith-based and socially conservative groups, which claimed it was inappropriate for young kids to learn about gender identity and masturbation.
“The need for a higher standard is evident when you consider the fact that only one in three Canadians know what ‘sexual consent’ means,” says Farrah Khan, a sexual violence educator and support worker in Toronto.
For the record, sexual consent needs to be enthusiastic and ongoing, given with a clear “yes,” affirmative words and positive body language, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. It can be taken away at any time.
The problem, says Khan, is that the general public seems to believe sex education means only discussions about penetrative sex (when a man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina) — but that approach is too narrow.
“A comprehensive sexual health education includes things like healthy relationships and communication,” she says.
“When we don’t have comprehensive sexual health education … we set up our youth to fail. We set up the conditions in which violence can thrive.”
Some Canadian schools start sexual health education as early as kindergarten, but others don’t start until Grade 6. There is also no consistency or continuity to what students are taught. Right now, a Grade 5 student in Alberta learns the names of reproductive organs and how they work, while a Grade 5 student in British Columbia only learns the names of body parts — not which ones are used in reproduction or how they work.
And yet, even if a student is slated to learn the names of reproductive organs and how they work in Grade 5, that could change if politicians change the curriculum — as has happened in provinces like Ontario following outcry from some parents and educators — changing what they learn and leaving them with an understanding of sexual health that’s disjointed and confusing.
Growing up watching one parent abuse another can also leave kids with a warped sense of what is and isn’t appropriate in a close relationship. For instance, it might leave them thinking that hitting a spouse or calling them names is a normal way to express love.
Although exposing children to abuse doesn’t constitute an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada, welfare legislation across the country considers this to be a form of maltreatment because of the lasting psychological effects it can have.
Watching or hearing one parent be physically, sexually or emotionally abused by the other can cause emotional, psychological, cognitive, social and behavioural problems in the long-term, according to a 2008 study. Bearing witness to domestic violence when you’re young can also lead children to grow into adults who treat their family the same way, according to a 2004 study.
And so, Zafar regrets her daughters grew up watching their father abuse her. Unfortunately, it’s common for children to be trapped in the middle of an abusive situation, used as pawns or physically threatened as a means of an abusive parent trying to force the other, their victim, to do what they want.
“One of the predictable things that (can) happen prior to a woman being killed by their partner is that there’s a threat or actual harm caused against members of that person’s family,” Khan says.
Without being taught the appropriate ways adults should speak to and touch young children — namely, with love, respect and consent — it could be communicated that abuse is OK, and the child may fail to realize that what’s happening to them is wrong.
“If they don’t have the language to say what’s happening to them, it puts them at a disadvantage because they won’t be able to explain to someone else — like a person in a position of authority that could help. They might internalize it,” Khan says.
“When you don’t have the language, how do you tell somebody?”
There are 14 risk factors of domestic homicides, according to a 2016 report produced by the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee of Ontario, which concluded that many domestic homicides could have been “predicted and prevented” with earlier recognition and action.
This is why Khan is so emphatic about the need to educate kids starting at a young age.
When children are given the language to identify risk factors — such as threats of violence, an escalation of violence or past instances of domestic violence — gender-based violence can be prevented. Children need to be taught about threatening language and that it’s inappropriate for their parent to threaten them with violence no matter the circumstances.
“When children witness abuse but they (believe) this is just the way mommies and daddies are … they have no counter-narrative, they’re going to blame themselves,” Khan says.
“We have a responsibility as a society if we’re committed to ending this kind of violence.”
And while some parents and educators, like the faith-based and socially conservative groups that opposed changes to sex education curriculum in Ontario, worry that teaching young kids about violence against women, trans and non-binary people may be too explicit and, therefore, inappropriate or harmful, Khan says there are ways to make learning age-appropriate.
Furthermore, she says, that isn’t a good excuse to forgo teaching kids what they need to know so they can be safe.
“There are appropriate ways to talk about the body, … about feelings and anger,” she says. “When somebody gets angry, is it OK for them to hit me or yell at me? Is it OK for them to hit mommy?”
Teaching kids simple concepts, like the correct names of their body parts (vagina and vulva, not “hoo-ha” or “flower”), can also prevent abuse from happening, Khan says.
“Abusers thrive on children not knowing the names.”
Indeed, giving children “naming power” is a key part of sexual development and can be a powerful tool for preventing sexual abuse, according to a 2008 study.
“It’s about how you position it,” says Zafar.
And while she’s hyper-attuned to making sure her own daughters are getting the right lessons they need now when it comes to violence and consent, she knows it isn’t a job for parents alone — especially if they aren’t even having those discussions.
“They’re uncomfortable, they’re taboo,” Zafar says, “That’s why we need this kind of education in our school curricula, too.”
A diversity of information on any one topic, coming from a wide array of sources — parents, educators and peers — is the most effective way to teach children, says Gunraj from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
“This is something that has to be learned in school and reinforced at home and in the community.”
Zafar’s daughters are growing up. As they become young women, she does her best to instil in them the lessons her own life has taught her.
“You can operate from a place of empathy … but if (someone) is being manipulative or abusive to you, you have to draw a line,” she tells her girls.
“You can’t help someone at the cost of your own mental and emotional well-being.”
If Canada prioritizes teaching kids at a young age the tenets of a healthy relationship, the signs of abuse and the meaning of consent, Gunraj believes the conversations younger generations have will be much more specific and healthy, especially during their teen years.
“Teaching it at school allows young people to learn and talk about it with each other,” she says. “It’s reinforced in the classroom and it’s reinforced at home.”
Until that happens, community-based alternatives like the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, or METRAC, are trying to bridge the gaps. One of the organization’s many programs is Respect in Action, a fun and supportive space for teens in the Toronto area.
Teens can go to the space after school to make art and do audio-visual and online activities that teach violence prevention in a youth-friendly and culturally relevant way.
The goal is to “build youths’ knowledge, skills and leadership in preventing violence in relationships and communities,” says program co-ordinator Wendy De Souza.
Students learn about warning signs of abuse, healthy relationships, how to access help or resources and how to support their peers. De Souza and others at the organization strive to make their teaching age-appropriate by “connecting complex conversations to the everyday experiences of young people.”
“We ask youth to think about, ‘How might you feel if someone grabbed your cellphone and started looking through it? Or if someone took your pencil crayons without asking?’” she says.
Those seemingly simple questions are designed to help young people “build a culture of consent in all areas of their life,” De Souza says.
In turn, Zafar hopes that culture will create a more empathetic and caring society.
“I would love for kids to understand … and be able to identify the flags (of abuse) to protect themselves and protect kids around them,” she says.
“But more than protection, I would love for our future leaders to be advocates for healthy relationships, to present them as examples and to call out unhealthy behaviours.”
To read the full Broken series, go here.
For a list of resources if you need help, go here.
Our reporting doesn’t end here. Do you have a story of violence against women, trans or non-binary people — sexual harassment, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or murder — that you want us to look at?
Email us: Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca