Why The World Must End Child Marriage — In Photos

Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Sinclair/Too Young to Wed.
This story was originally published on September 18, 2015.

Worldwide, more than 700 million women living today were married before the age of 18; of those, more than one in three women were wed before the age of 15, according to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). India alone accounts for one third of all child marriages, according to UNICEF. You can read the story of Sonali Khatun, a child bride who fought to get divorced at 14 and became an advocate for girls in her community, here.

Child marriage robs girls of the opportunity to finish their education, and girls who are forced to have children too early are more likely to die during childbirth or suffer serious complications. Girls forced to wed too young are also vulnerable to sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Photographer Stephanie Sinclair has dedicated more than a decade of her life to capturing the faces and voices of these child brides. Over the past 13 years, her work has taken her to places as diverse as India, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Yemen, Nepal, and Ethiopia. Sinclair's goal is to raise awareness about child marriage worldwide through her photographs, as well as to give girls better opportunities through the nonprofit organization she founded, Too Young To Wed.

Sinclair spoke to Refinery29 from her home in New York's Hudson Valley.

Why did you feel documenting child marriage was such an important project to undertake?
"I started this project in 2003. Previously, I was a conflict photographer, and I was covering child marriage while I was working in Afghanistan. I think most people think of child marriage as something that happened generations ago, when people didn't live as long and didn't have the same access to education...most of us think that this isn't still happening — girls being married at very young ages (nine, 10, 11 years old, some of them pre-pubescent).

"But when I was working in Afghanistan, there were several girls throughout the country who were setting themselves on fire; they were attempting suicide. When I went to the hospital to talk to the survivors, I learned that they had been married at very young ages. I felt that I had to make sure that if I was going to cover something so intense, like these suicide attempts, I had to look at the reasons behind them. It wasn't the only reason, but being married very young was a sort of primary common denominator. The girls weren't very articulate, because they were in a lot of pain, but there was this common denominator of why they had done this.

"Then, I realized that this was an issue that was happening worldwide and that was very much still alive. But there were no photographs of it — no visual evidence. So my goal was to provide this evidence. I started in Afghanistan and then traveled to 10 different countries. We see child marriage happening the most in developing countries, but we also have child marriage in the U.S. and in Europe — not in high numbers, but it exists."

Too Young To Wed is also selling Sinclair's prints to help support programs for girls around the world.

Photo caption:
“Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” Tehani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was six and he was 25. The young wife posed for a portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their home in Hajjah, Yemen.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that one in three women alive today were married before the age of 15. It is in fact one in three women of the 700 million who were married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF.
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Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Sinclair/Too Young to Wed.
What does childhood marriage rob girls of?
"We are trying to raise awareness, especially because the issue is so huge. A girl is married against her will every two seconds around the world. One in three girls [is] married before [she] turns 18.

"Childhood marriage has many harmful repercussions. One of the biggest thing it robs girls of is their education; if they marry and they are not literate, they lack power. If a girl's husband dies or leaves her or they get divorced and she can't read, she can't support herself. I think education is something they miss out on really from the time they get engaged and are taken out of school.

"Health-wise, one of the biggest issues is that girls who give birth before the age of 15 are more than twice as likely to die during childbirth. Their children are also at greater risk to be born premature, because the girls' hips aren't wide enough. They end up in obstructed labor, and they can end up with fistulas because they are pushing their bodies so much, and their bodies aren't ready for it.

"There is also significant emotional trauma and stress, not to mention sexual violence. In these early marriages, girls are becoming sexually active before they can give this consent, and that's a big deal."

Photo caption: A woman tends to grain during the rainy season in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia on August 13, 2012. According to the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, 37% of young women in sub-Saharan Africa ages 20 to 24 were married before turning 18. In 2010, there were 13.1 million girls married by age 18 in sub-Saharan Africa, and the number is expected to rise to 15 million by 2030.
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Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Sinclair/Too Young to Wed.
Although poverty plays a huge role, some well-off families also choose to marry off their girls. What are some of the factors behind child marriage?
"It's mostly happening in developing areas where poverty is an issue. But it's often complicated, because families are also trying to protect their girls. They sometimes feel that when girls are getting to an age where they are menstruating, they don't want the girls to be walking to school and be attacked and lose their virginity or become pregnant. A lot of these girls are walking three or four miles to school each day.

"When menstruation begins, there is also frequently not a private place for girls to wash at school. So a lot of families don't want their girls to go to school when they have their periods. In some cases, there is abuse by male teachers...sometimes, families don't send their girls to school because they don't want them to be assaulted... But it's a vicious cycle, because if girls don't stay in school long enough to graduate, they can't become [the] female teachers [those communities need].

"One of the biggest issues globally is that girls are not being valued outside of their bodies. Their value is still found in their fertility, their sexuality, their ability to work as labor. But they are not being seen for the value of their minds and what they can bring in terms of ideas, the way men are seen."

Photo caption: Young girls sit inside a home outside of Al Hudaydah, Yemen. Yemen's women's rights groups agree that child marriage is rampant in every part of Yemeni society.
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Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Sinclair/Too Young to Wed.
Is it also true that families marry off girls because they view them and their sexualities as a burden, or something to be controlled?
"I would say that most parents aren't trying to hurt their kids. I have been working on this project for a long time, and I have seen many girls get married. I do think some of this is done to protect them. People in conservative Muslim societies sometimes require girls to wear the niqab [a veil that covers the entire face except for the eyes] and they see this as a way of protecting girls, whereas other people see that as a way of controlling them. So there are two sides to this argument.

"One of the things we find is that in times of stress, whether that is poverty, conflict, or a natural disaster, you are seeing families sort of taking a dual decision. They can't care for the burden of extra children, so they put girls with other families and bring income to their own family...through a dowry. The other side is that, in some ways, they also see it as a way to protect girls. If they are in school and reach puberty, they can risk losing their honor, the family's honor, by losing their 'purity.' That burden of maintaining purity and virginity is still something placed on girls."

Photo caption: Rajni, 5, was woken up at 4 a.m. and carried by her uncle to be married in a secret wedding ceremony. She and her sisters, Radha, 15, and Gora, 13, were married to three young brothers on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya in North India.
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Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Sinclair/Too Young to Wed.
Tell us the story behind this photo.
"I met Aracely in 2014. I was spending a lot of time working in areas where it had been documented that child marriage was very common. But it was less documented and there was less data on Latin America. So I was very surprised to find child marriage is still very common there.

"In Guatemala, it's a little bit different; a lot of the girls are not being forced into the marriage. But a lot of times, there is a huge age difference. Aracely was 11 and her husband was in his 30s when they met. Just the fact that society accepted...this much older man...seducing this young girl, seducing her into marrying him — and that her family agreed — was shocking.

"She became pregnant very soon after being married, and she ended up giving birth at 12. Right after she gave birth, her husband left her. So she is now a a single mother who is basically illiterate.

"It's heartbreaking; she is very young and she is now going to face an uphill battle for the rest of her life. I asked what she wanted for her son, and she said, 'He's going to be the one taking care of me.' That, to me, really showed her lack of faith in herself and her abilities. There just isn't enough value in her independence and her education. I don't mean that in a critical way toward her family. I just think there needs to be structural support for these girls — a way to give them those values and help them.

"She is now vulnerable for the rest of her life. With that type of low self-esteem, low self-value, she is going to be more vulnerable to domestic violence. Who is going to marry her as a child who also has a young child to care for? Who is going to help care for her and help make the best decisions for her?"

Photo caption: Aracely, 15, holds her son. She is one of a half million Guatemalan girls who marry and give birth before they can legally vote, drink, or buy cigarettes. According to a 2012 UN Population Fund survey, 30% of Guatemalan women ages 20-24 were married by 18, and that number may be even higher in rural areas.
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Photo: Courtesy of Newsha Tavakolian for Too Young to Wed/The Girl Generation.
What can be done to end child marriage?
"I would like to see us focus on supporting more programs, more work, and more solutions. One of the programs that Too Young To Wed supports is in Kenya. It is called the Samburu Girls Foundation.

"They [help] girls who have run away from their young marriages or have been cut in female genital mutilation rituals that are part of initiation ceremonies into adulthood...there is a safe house [that provides them with] shelter... The safe house staff then negotiate with the families to keep the girls safe and in school. It's a place for them to live and study.

"We need to support on-the-ground programs like this one. We very much believe in the power of storytelling, and we will continue to document these stories until [child marriage] is no longer an issue. But we really want to support organizations that are on the ground and dealing with this. The Samburu Girls Foundation is a front-line organization; they are really there for these girls. But they are very small and don't have much funding."

Photo caption: A young girl twirls in a carefree moment during laundry day at the safe house in Kenya.
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Photo: Courtesy of Newsha Tavakolian for Too Young to Wed/The Girl Generation.
Do you have any advice for young women who want to do this type of storytelling and advocacy work?
"You really have to believe you can do it, and you really have to have something to say. It takes a lot of soul-searching to find that, but if you understand these things and believe in the work you are doing, people will support you.

"In terms of photography, it is still a business. I really think that every student should take a basic business class before doing this work. You need to understand your copyright rights — there are so many contracts to sign — and you need to understand what rights you are giving away.

"In any business, you have to know how to run it. If you don't do those things, you can't tell the stories you want to tell, or you won't be able to tell them for many years. It's important to have your work protected."

Photo caption: Eunice, 13, helps braid the hair of another resident. The girls are most vulnerable to female genital mutilation and forced marriage during the school holiday breaks.