More than Survival: Shakila Zareen’s victory over gender-based violence

Jun 14, 2021
*Warning: this story contains references to violence against women and sexual assault, which may be disturbing for some people.*

A former child bride and child labourer, Shakila Zareen’s life changed in an instant when her husband shot her in the face after she reported his abuses to the police. In a new video interview with Michael Messenger, President and CEO of World Vision Canada, Shakila, an Afghan refugee living in Vancouver, shares her courageous story and talks about her fight to end violence and injustice against women

Watch the interview now: 

Read Shakila Zareen’s story transcribed from her own words.

Growing up as a girl in Afghanistan, it was very difficult to be a girl. Extremely difficult.

As a child and as a girl I always wanted to get an education. I wanted to go to school. But my own brother said to me many times that: “there was no need for you to go to school, no need for you to get an education because you are a girl. Because you will get married and bear children and be an obedient wife.”

At 12, Shakila had to leave school to become a child labourer, weaving carpets to support her family.  

Child marriage and forced marriage are very common practice in Afghanistan. This is an ugly part of our society which is very unpleasant and unacceptable. But unfortunately, it happens. Unfortunately, it exists. And I was one of those girls who was forced into marriage as a child. 

At 16, Shakila was forced into marriage because of financial pressures. The abuse began on their wedding night.   

It’s because of the lack of education, poverty and coercion. Girls are discouraged and discriminated against before being born. They are engaged to men before they even come into the world. All the energy and encouragement are given to the boys. Boys always rule while girls almost don’t exist. The idea is that girls don’t stay with their families forever, so why invest so much energy, time and effort?

Shakila reported her husband to the police. But they tipped him off. That night, her husband shot her in the face. She lost an eye, most of her nose and her ear. Her teeth and jaw were destroyed.

A young Afghan woman lays in a hospital bed sleeping
Shakila's injuries have required multiple surgeries to correct the harm done by her former husband. But she has not let that stop her from speaking out for women's rights. Photo: Courtesy of Shakila Zareen

Shakila, her mother and siblings escaped to India. But the death threats from Afghanistan continued. In 2018, Shakila and her family arrived in Canada as refugees. 

In the last seven years, it has been a sweet and also a bitter journey. It has been very long. I have found friends. My friends gave me good positive energy and they stood shoulder to shoulder with me. Canada is a free country where they listen to your voice.

This attack changed my life, but I don’t see myself as a weak person. This attack made me even stronger. I am always in a good spirit. I am powerful. I can stand in front of people with full energy and tell my gory story. To raise my voice for gender inequality. For injustice. For violence against women. 

My message to Canadians is that please listen to the story of Afghan women. Because we are the ones who have gone through these experiences. And these are our stories. Listen to my story. Help me amplify my voice to Canadians and all over the world. Because Afghan women go through a lot. They are very brave. They fight against this discrimination on a daily basis, no matter how many times they are shoved down or discriminated against. Still, they stand up and fight against injustice. 

My message to Canadians is that whenever there is an event, meeting or discussion about Afghan women’s rights, the participation of Afghan women should be mandatory. Afghan women have to be at the table and part of the discussion. There are so many events where they discuss Afghan women’s rights, but Afghan women were not present at all. 

You can stand shoulder to shoulder with us to show solidarity. We can work together. We Afghan women can share our stories. We have a voice. Just work with us and support us. 

Shakila continues to advocate for ending violence against women from her home in Vancouver. She has had many surgeries to slowly recover from her injuries. 

a young Afghan woman looks directly into the camera.
Shakila's experience has strengthened her resolve to speak up for women and girls both in Afghanistan and around the world. Photo: Courtesy of Shakila Zareen

Overcoming gender inequality in Afghanistan

Asuntha Charles, National Director for World Vision Afghanistan, says stories like Shakila’s become more common because of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and forced displacement due to increased conflict or climate shocks like droughts.

“Because of the economic crisis during COVID, many children have been sold at a very early age. Girls become like a product so the family can survive,” she says. 

To prevent more stories like Shakila’s, World Vision launched the It Takes a World to End Child Marriage of Afghan Girls campaign in 2017 which has had a dramatic impact on the incidence of child, early and forced marriage where the program operates. 

“We are able to mobilize communities,” Charles says. “We work with different groups. Especially community elders, faith leaders, family members and also with the government. So that we can have a consolidated effort to reduce and prevent child marriage to safeguard these children. And we are seeing a real impact.”

In 2020, nearly 200,000 people engaged in World Vision child protection programs to end child marriage, keep girls in school and promote gender equality in Afghanistan. 

An Indian woman crouches down to speak to a group of young girls in Afghanistan.
Asuntha Charles and her team in Afghanistan are working hard to make sure what happened to Shakila Zareen doesn't happen to other girls. Photo: Qauom Abdullahi

Asuntha Charles is an example of what is possible, overcoming extreme gender inequality in her home country in India to now lead one of the largest NGO’s in Afghanistan, another traditional, conservative context.

“I always tell my staff, I’m not coming from a very progressive background. But you can use me as an example of what is possible. Women have a lot of power. When there are opportunities, your power is visible. I see so many Afghan women being so powerful once those opportunities are created.”

World Vision has been working in Afghanistan for over 20 years to help where it is needed most. Every year, World Vision programs reach nearly 500,000 children and adults. 

You can help. Learn more about Raw Hope now. 

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