When Zaaria Patni was 19 years old, she was just like any other young adult in college. One day a boy asked her out for coffee, and the two hit it off immediately. Because she was young and unafraid, she fell for him instantly – without really knowing who he was. Before she knew it, she was married to him, a man seven years her senior.
This is when things took a turn for the worst. Not long after the wedding, he began subjecting her to mental and physical abuse, even torturing her and sexually assaulting her. Zaaria could not look at anyone but her husband, go anywhere he didn’t permit her to go, or wear anything without his approval.
Six months into their marriage, her husband forced himself on Zaaria, and she was soon pregnant with a son. Despite the traumatic conception of her child, she loved him unconditionally, regardless of her hatred for his father. Throughout her pregnancy, she suffered countless abuses from her husband, including incidents of him pushing her down the stairs, refusing to take her to the hospital, and withholding her medication.
After the birth of her son, Muhammad, Zaaria was terrified to return to her home in Dubai because of threatening text messages she would often receive from her husband. She decided to file for divorce, and fought a long legal battle with her husband for custody. For six years, her life seemed like perpetual court case, until she was finally granted custody.
When her career in photography began to take off, Zaaria realized she needed a visa for Muhammad. However, she was unable to get her child a passport because officials demanded a signature from the child’s father.
Frustrated by the lack of understanding from her government, she decided to tweet about her experience to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. As a single mother, Zaaria took on the system alone. She created an online petition, supported by 96,000 people, which of course caught the government’s attention. Because of her efforts, Indian passport applications and other governmental forms now take into account single mothers.
Childhood and teenage marriages are commonplace in India. Zaaria is just one of many young girls who are victimized by men they should never have had to marry. Her long journey to freedom, after so much pain and hardship, ultimately has an uplifting ending. However, too many girls cannot say the same for themselves.
According to the organization Girls Not Brides, 47 percent of India’s women are married before they turn 18, and 18 percent are married before they turn 15. While A National Action Plan to prevent child marriages was drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2013, it has yet to be completely finalized, and keeping in mind these alarming statistics, this plan is clearly not enough to protect Indian women and children.
India has the highest number of child brides in the world. These are girls who are trapped, abused, scared, and looking for any way to break free. Zaaria fought for years in order to attain freedom, and ultimately changed a law in the process, helping countless other Indian single mothers.
The countless girls, like Zaaria, can no longer remain anonymous. We tell this story for them.
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