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Celebrating the Courage of Children in Rajasthan

Photographer Stephanie Sinclair spent nearly a decade documenting the harmful repercussions of child marriage, from self-immolation to trafficking and rape. In India, home to the highest absolute number of child brides in the world, she witnessed secret wedding ceremonies for girls as young as five years old. Sinclair’s journalistic investigation culminated in her creation of a full-blown campaign to educate and inform to end child marriage around the world.

“Can you imagine not having an education today? You’re completely vulnerable. And with child marriage the girls almost always get pulled out of school,” Sinclair says. “That’s one of the main repercussions. That’s why it’s such a critical issue. Child marriage totally disempowers girls.” But equally important as getting the message out about the negative, she adds, is to highlight the bright spots.

Sinclair recently returned to Rajasthan, India, where change has begun. She met young girls—and boys—who had taken a stand against their own parents and refused to be married, choosing instead to stay in school. In between making images with her regular camera, Sinclair snapped the candid portraits shown here with her mobile phone.

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iPhone portraits by Stephanie Sinclair of young girls in Rajasthan, India, who shared their stories about why they refused their child marriages.

“I pulled out my iPhone camera thinking to myself, How would these girls share their stories if they could do it themselves?” said Sinclair. “My niece is the same age as these girls, and she says everyone her age loves Instagram. So I thought, OK, well then I want to use this way to communicate this story.”

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Keshanta Gujar, 16. “To my colleagues and other girls I want to say that you too must study. I think that even kids can say no to their parents for marriage.”

Although Sinclair has reported on child marriage as a professional journalist, her images have taken on another life of advocacy. They have been exhibited and published to influence policymakers and used to pressure governments to change laws or enforce the ones already in place. “I’m still always open to what the men have to say and I think you absolutely have to engage them,” Sinclair acknowledges. “And even though I didn’t come into it this way, I’ll never do a story that child marriage is a positive thing. So in that way I’m not fully objective anymore.”

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Babli Maayida, approximately 14 (she was not sure of her exact age). “I did not like it when they said they want to get me married. I said, ‘I’m very young right now and I don’t want to get married. I want to study. I’m a child.'”

Sinclair has sometimes been asked about the issue of projecting Western values into the way she photographs in developing countries. But she points out that it’s a two-way street. “I’m never working in a vacuum. No one will help me with a topic like this unless the people from these communities want these messages to get out.”

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Dinesh Chandra Ninama, 14. “This is what happens when you get married young: ‘Oh dear, go here, go there!’ I would go for laboring, then I’d start boozing. In my village there are people who got married and do this.”

“I think that most families want their kids to prosper: That is universal. But I think sometimes traditional practices can get in the way of that,” Sinclair says. “Of course, parents can still force them to get married, but in certain communities, kids are standing up for themselves and the families are listening.”

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Savita Daamor, 13. “My father was saying, he will get me married. I refused, I said, ‘No, I won’t get married.’ I would not like it if I got married at a tender age.”

“I want people to see these pictures and be inspired to do work that inspires other people. When I first started this project, I only really dreamed that it would grow to be as big as it is,” said Sinclair. “I don’t think I’ll ever be done with this story. But hopefully my kids will.”

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Laali Bairwa, 15. “My circumstances were such that my mother had passed away and there was no one to do the work. So I complied and thought, ‘Alright, I will not study, my life is ruined.’ Then I went to my father in tears saying, ‘Please, I will do the work and study at the same time.’ I said to my father, ‘Do not get me married. I do not want to marry. I want to study. If you want to educate me, then do it, or I will study on my own.’ If I can say no to my father, then even you can say no.”

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