April 27, 2022 marked a powerful accomplishment and simultaneous exhale of relief for 35-year-old Child Marriage Survivor and Campaigner, Payzee Mahmod. Mahmod sat next to fellow activists within the UK’s Houses of Parliament, mitigated by what she had witnessed. Following an arduous ten-year-long battle to ban child marriage in England and Wales, legal action finally passed to ensure that no child in the UK will legally endure Mahmod’s own childhood experiences. Mahmod shares, “It was absolutely crucial to us that we ban child marriage in every form—when the law change happens, it will include customary, traditional, religious, and registered marriages.” The result of this fight is by no means an end to Mahmod’s campaigning journey. As a representative of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization (IKWRO), Mahmod has since lobbied for the end to hymenoplasty and virginity testing and spoken publicly about her own experience in child marriage; The first time being her TEDx Talk “Payzee Mahmod: A Survivor’s Plea to End Child Marriage.” Now a recipient of the UK’s 2022 Global Citizen Prize: Citizen Award, Mahmod shows us all how a voice once silenced, roars at the forefront for others.
Married to a man nearly twice her age, for a 16-year-old Payzee Mahmod, things didn’t feel right. Having grown up in London, Mahmod’s memories of her family life and its Kurdish heritage orbit around social status, a dictation of fortune and opportunity. Undermining this cultural imperative, Mahmod’s elder sister reported abuses to authorities and was consequently removed from the home. The communal ostracism that followed was too much for her father to bear, and resulted in Payzee and her late sister Banaz’s coercion into child marriage. While Mahmod was able to escape her marriage after two years, her sister Banaz was murdered in an honor killing—a wrongful, yet familiar fate for child brides who take a stand. “That is the reason I left my child marriage,” she says. “When I saw my sister go through that, I knew I had to get out. There was no other way. I knew my fate could potentially end up like hers. In a weird way, she saved me from going through even more abuse in my own marriage.”
In 2020, Mahmod spoke publicly as a survivor and campaigner during her first TEDx Talk, advocating for humanity’s call-to-action rather than the absence of interference from passersby. For Mahmod, red flags were saturated around her—a stranger could have changed her fate. When asked how she wishes someone might have helped her, Mahmod shares, “It’s as simple as asking somebody if they’re okay. When you look at scenarios like that, you can tell something isn’t right. I do feel as a society, as much as we’re standing up in solidarity for one another, we still have a long way to go in feeling responsible for one another, and making sure that when we see something wrong, we question it. We don’t look away. Question things because you never know—you might save someone’s life.”
As an activist, Mahmod refuses to wait for the storm to clear. “Growing up,” she shares, “I never thought about using my voice in any way. I always had this reaffirming message, as a girl, that I should be as quiet as possible. Going from that to speaking to audiences is something I never take for granted. I’m now able to use my voice and speak out, but I also know there are many women and girls who cannot do it safely. Just as we’re having this conversation, I’m thinking of the women in Iran who are out on the streets, marching every day, and risking their lives for speaking. It’s something I’m trying to be comfortable with, because all these years of being silenced, it’s hard to stand in that power and own that.” With an upcoming second TEDx Talk and participation in UN’s 16 Days of Activism—activism against gender-based violence, Mahmod continues to instill hope. After experiencing the eye of the storm Payzee Mahmod reminds us that we do not need to wait out the storm and let it take its toll. Instead, we must shelter one another and caution the storm that our roars are louder in unity.