It was a quick stop at Tim’s to get a sprinkles donut for my 2 year old daughter on the way back from her drop-in play school. I stood at the counter after ordering and dug into my coat pocket to retrieve the toonie I was sure I’d put in there. But I couldn’t find it. My embarrassment was ratcheting into panic as I frantically turned my purse inside out. I never had any money on me. I didn’t need any, according to my husband, since I never went anywhere without him. But every once in a while, I tried to squirrel away a few coins, like the one I thought was hiding in my purse. Palms sweaty and face heating up, I started to move away from the counter when a man behind me offered to pay for the donut. His eyes were kind and his tone was sympathetic. Seeing my daughter had already bit into the donut, I had no choice but to reluctantly accept. I pushed the stroller outside and sat on a dusty bench, feeding small pieces of donut to my daughter as tears overtook me. I wanted to be grateful for the man’s generosity, but all I felt was stinging humiliation. What kind of life was I living that I didn’t even have two dollars on me? And what kind of person was I that people took such pity on me? The answer was obvious. I was poor. I was powerless.
That afternoon in 2003 was a pivotal moment in my life. A fire was ignited in me to do whatever I could to gain bits of power over the next several years. I finished my high school courses through distance learning, playing the good wife by day and studying in my room at night. I knew my husband would never let me leave the house to earn money for university, so I started a home-based babysitting service. And though I had to turn over my earnings to my husband, I managed to sock away a few hundred dollars here and there.
I finally started university as a 26 year old mother of two. It had taken me nearly 10 years, but I’d gone from victim to survivor. I was being respected at school for the very things I was being ridiculed at home for – my goals, my ambitions, my intelligence, my individuality. I secretly started attending counseling on campus where I learned that I was trapped in the vicious cycle of abuse. I wanted to break that cycle to give my daughters a better life. It took me several days and multiple trips in my green minivan to pack my belongings in garbage bags and move to a tiny student housing apartment on UTM campus. It was small, there was no AC, and it had the ugliest green carpet. But it was mine. For the first time, I felt safe at home. I could wake up when I wanted, invite friends over, eat my favourite foods, and breathe freely. For me, that freedom was power. That year, I juggled five jobs to stay afloat. I worked as a TA, a researcher with the City of Mississauga and a student mentor. I did night shifts at the student information centre on campus, and sold home-made biryani and butter chicken to fellow students.
Two years later, when I graduated as a top student, I knew that a key ingredient to my success was the community that lifted me up and the people who showed me that there is good in the world. That kind man at Tim’s, the woman at the drop-in play school who reached out when she saw the signs of abuse before I even knew what to call it, the friends who bought my butter chicken and then showed up with ice cream when I had rough days, the professors who spent their office hours motivating me, and my mentors who believed in me so strongly that I had no choice but to start believing in myself. All these people taught me the biggest lesson of my life. That with success, comes responsibility. And true power lies in empowering others.
I knew that my story was not just mine. It was the story of millions of women and girls around the world who continue to suffer in silence. I felt a deep fire in my belly to break that silence – for the millions of silences still waiting to be broken. And when I saw the impact my story made on people’s lives, I found my purpose, my why.
My why is the man who read my story and canceled his teenage daughter’s wedding to send her to school. My why is that woman who hides in Indigo to read my book because her husband won’t allow her to buy it. And my why is that 16 year old girl in St. Andrews, New Brunswick who watched my videos to move forward after sexual assault.
1 in 3 women in North America are affected by domestic violence. 1 in 2 experience some form of physical and/or sexual harassment. 12 million underage girls every year are forced into marriage. Over the past few years, my advocacy work has taken me across the globe and I have heard thousands of similar stories to mine – from Indigenous communities in rural Alberta, immigrant neighbourhoods in Toronto, young girls in Africa, and accomplished women in the executive towers of Bay Street. Gender-based violence is the most hidden, and most universally prevalent barrier to gender equity. As we speak about breaking glass ceilings and having gender equality in boardrooms, it’s also important to remember that so many of us are still struggling for basic rights to safety, education and respect.
My life mission is now to give voice to these issues and help develop solutions for change. This year, I am launching my nonprofit organization, Brave Beginnings, which is a mentorship program to help women build better lives after escaping violence. I’m also working on developing courses and workshops to raise the level of mental health education for young women so they can develop greater resilience and self-worth. And I’m collaborating with key partners to develop training for workplaces to play a key role in supporting women affected by domestic violence.
Just like that 2003 afternoon at Tim’s, winning the WXN Top 100 Award was another pivotal moment for me. As I was overwhelmed with gratitude, the award also gave me immense validation for my work. The day after the awards gala in November, I went to Zimbabwe as an ambassador for Plan Canada. As I spent time with young girls living in poverty, facing the threat of sexual assault and child marriage, and still walking up to 10 kms each way just to go to school, I saw myself in each of them. I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor, a child marriage survivor, and a domestic abuse survivor. I was never supposed to make it. I was stripped of my power for years. Today, seeing my name among the most powerful women in the country adds more fuel to my fire – to raise my voice even higher, touch more lives, and keep living my purpose to help empower women everywhere live theirs.
Because power is not about job titles, hierarchies, and material success. I believe that real power lies in empowering others, sparking dialogue for change, and taking action to leave the world more equitable than we found it.
Samra Zafar, Speaker, Author, Human Rights Advocate for Samra Zafar Inc, is a Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award Winner in the Champions category for 2019. She has made describable difference to the advancement of women in the workplace.
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Samra Zafar is a Speaker, Author, Human Rights Advocate for Samra Zafar Inc.
2019 Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award Winner
Award-winning speaker, and human rights advocate, Samra Zafar’s book A Good Wife, based on her personal story of escaping gender-based oppression to pursue her education, became an instant national bestseller and is to be adapted to a TV series. The books is name as one of CBC’s best books of 2019. She serves as a governor for University of Toronto and a celebrated ambassador for Plan International. Her work has been featured extensively in global media. In 2019 she received a Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award. She is a board member at Women’s College Hospital Foundation.