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Photography by Belinda Mason

I grew up in Queens, New York and my childhood was no different from other American children. When I turned four years old, I traveled to America with my pregnant mother and 3 siblings. The first place we ever lived was Astoria, Queens. I remember starting kindergarten and getting used to wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I did not face any real racism from other children until I was about 7 years old. During the summer before second grade, I got my nose pierced. It was common in my culture because when we get married, we wear a jewelry piece called a “Naat”. I come from the tribal region of the Pashtuns, who live more by the code of Pashtunwali than the religion of Islam. At the age of 8, I was betrothed to my first cousin Tariq, who was 13 years older than me. I went from calling him “lala” – a term of endearment for ‘big brother’ – to suddenly looking at him as my future spouse. It did not really hit me; I mean I was only an 8 year old child. I continued living a relatively normal life up until 2003. I went back to Pakistan for my older brother’s wedding. He was emotionally blackmailed into marrying my mother’s first cousin. People often ask how you can be forced to marry someone you did not want to marry. Sometimes your parents don’t have to put a gun to your head. They just say one word and you feel compelled to sacrifice your whole life to their decision. My parents always used to say they will die or disown me. Losing my family was one of my biggest fears – and a fear so many other young women who have been in my position share. We do not know anything other than our family, so when we are threatened with an ultimatum, we pick our families. You can love your parents and live your own life accordingly. In Islam, as our Prophet P.B.U.H said, the best thing you can do when two people are in love is to get married. Religion plays no part in forced marriages. It is all cultural and actually forbidden in Islam to force your daughter to get married. That dreary visit to Pakistan in 2003 changed my life forever. I had my Nikah done. I was now Tariq’s wife, according to Islamic law. I was 13 years old, waiting to start high school. I was unhappy, and my oldest brother was very well aware of this. My Parents sent me back because I had a Spanish boyfriend and escaped foster care. I left for Pakistan in October 2004 while I was still a ward of the state. Three months later came January 5, 2005, the day a part of me died forever. I was sent to go live with my husband Tariq that day. My dad gave him his 15 year old daughter to rape and beat. The first night Tariq entered our bedroom I wanted to disappear or have the ground open up and swallow me. He tried to touch me but I was not having it. I remember making a barrier in the bed. It was a very uncomfortable night. I am extremely lucky to be alive. We need more resources for survivors of forced marriages and honor killings. My dream is to open up a home for teenagers that want to speak out against these issues. They need a safe haven where their cultural needs will be met so they don’t have to marry someone that they do not wish to. Education and awareness is key.

Naila Amin is a 26 year old Social work student and Activist to end child marriage.  She is also a member of the UN NGO on Sustainable Development – NY. She dreams of opening up the first group home for underage teens escaping forced marriage and honor violence.