Documenting Child Marriage for Over a Decade—and Still Going

Photographer Stephanie Sinclair has been photographing the issue of child marriage for 13 years. Her work on the topic was featured in the 2011 National Geographic magazine story “Too Young to Wed” (which is also the name of the nonprofit she founded in 2012 that advocates to end the practice). I wondered how Stephanie has sustained her coverage for so long—if she’s kept up with the girls she’s photographed, who she surrounds herself with, how the issue has evolved, and if she ever needs to take a break.

BECKY HARLAN: When was your first brush with the reality of child marriage?

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: I first encountered child marriage in Afghanistan in 2003. I was horrified to learn that several girls in one province had set themselves on fire. After some investigation, it became apparent that one of the things propelling these girls to commit such a drastic act was having been forced to marry as a child. They told me they’d been married at 9, 10, 11—and in their misery [they] had preferred death over the lives they were living. Naïvely, I’d assumed those kinds of things no longer occurred in the world. The horror of learning otherwise is really where the Too Young to Wed project began.

BECKY: When did you realize that documenting child marriage would go far beyond a single photo story—that it would turn into a mission?

STEPHANIE: Every girl I met, in each country, completely broke my heart—particularly the ones married to much older men. The more I pursued the phenomenon, the more the issue continued to unravel before me. The trauma these girls carry with them into adulthood is utterly palpable when speaking with child marriage survivors about their experiences. These heroic women live their lives just like anyone else, but if they’re comfortable enough to discuss their past with you, the toll taken by such an intense childhood trauma becomes very, very clear.

Then you take the experiences of the relative handful of girls and survivors I’ve met and then realize … with child marriage occurring in more than 50 countries worldwide, how many more girls are living a similar hell, day in and day out. The numbers are staggering! At least 39,000 girls married every day—that’s one girl every two seconds! Every day that goes by, an incomprehensible number of girls’ lives have been forever changed.

From a photographic perspective, it’s also important to note that the issue manifests itself differently in each country. This leads to huge variations in the practice, so it makes sense that a simple handful of photographs couldn’t possibly suffice to explain an issue as pervasive and nuanced as this.

If that’s not inspiration enough to set someone on a mission, I don’t know what is.

BECKY: Photographers often talk about how to sustain long-term projects—emotionally, financially, logistically. What are some of the ways that you’ve found work for you and for the greater story?

STEPHANIE: I have been fortunate that in the time I’ve been working on this project, the world has started to take notice of the importance of addressing child marriage. Now there are conferences and gatherings where grassroots organizations gather to talk about the issue. This has been invaluable in figuring out which stories remain underreported. The longer I do this work, the more allies I seem to meet. It’s quite lovely in that respect.

BECKY: Did you ever feel like maybe you’d covered the issue as well as you could? Have you ever needed a break?

STEPHANIE: It will only be well enough when there are no more girls being forced into marriages when they are just children. In fact, 13 years after starting this project, I’m still writing grant proposals for additional parts to this series that emerge unexpectedly. But absolutely, taking breaks has been important. There is a lot of beauty and joy in the world. It’s important to surround yourself with that too, so you have the energy to tackle the ugliness out there and hopefully create change.

BECKY: You must have a lot of people that you work alongside of in your storytelling. What has that been like?

STEPHANIE: In every community I’ve worked in, I’ve encountered activists—mothers, fathers, village elders, and even other children—who oppose the practice of child marriage and want to see change. These images could not have been captured without their collaboration and their courage to stand up to traditions they instinctively know are harmful and utterly unfair.

Too Young to Wed’s director of projects, Christina Piaia, has been invaluable in helping me stay the course in this journey, particularly over the last two years, as our organization has grown into a registered nonprofit. My husband, Bryan Hoben, and my best friend, Edie Gross, have also been amazing support through this process, helping with pretty much every task under the sun.

BECKY: How do you continue to decide which countries you want to highlight and whose stories you want to tell?

STEPHANIE: I focused for years on the harmful repercussions of child marriage—perhaps the obvious starting point, visually, for this type of story. But the more I became immersed in the reality of these girls’ lives, the more I realized how important it was to include more “results based” aspects of the story, like the stories of kids who defied their parents and walked away from their arranged marriages, [as well as] profiling various programs that are working to end the practice.

Too Young to Wed is now also commissioning dedicated photographers to help us in this quest. Late last year we assigned Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian to photograph the Samburu Girls Foundation, a grassroots organization in rural Kenya, which provides shelter and education to girls rescued from child marriage, female genital mutilation, and other harmful practices.

BECKY: You mentioned that the spring 2015 earthquake in Nepal affected some of the girls you had worked with. Will you return to cover that story?

STEPHANIE: [It’s] one of the next stories I hope to cover. The Kagati village in Nepal, where I conducted much of my child marriage reporting in 2007, was destroyed by the recent earthquakes. When I returned to visit the girls last year, seven years after I first photographed them, I learned that this village had successfully raised the average age of marriage for girls from 12 to 15. Not perfect but a huge victory in a very short amount of time. Tragically, however, the recent natural disaster has seen the region reverse much of this progress.

BECKY: How has child marriage evolved since you started covering it in 2003?

STEPHANIE: Excitingly, we have begun to see real change on the issue in a global political context. For example, just this summer the United Nations adopted a resolution on child marriage. As the resolution gained steam, we witnessed firsthand the impact that visual evidence of human rights issues has in influencing change. Issues that might otherwise be too abstract or too distant to move people can suddenly become tangible and inescapable.

Stephanie Sinclair’s work on child marriage is on view at Photoville in New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge Park from September 18 to 28.

Too Young to Wed is having a print sale, from September 10 to 20 to benefit the women and children in Kagati village, Nepal, who were affected by the spring 2015 earthquake. One of those women is Niruta, 20 (she is the 14-year-old bride whose husband is putting vermillion on her forehead in one of the images above), whose wedding Sinclair photographed in the village when she was just 14. The sale will also benefit organizations in Ethiopia and Kenya. You can learn more about the cause and see prints here.

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