All Photographs and Captions by Stephanie Sinclair/ Too Young to Wed, Unless Otherwise Noted
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Young girls sit inside a home outside of Al Hudaydah, Yemen, in 2010. Local women's rights groups agree that child marriage is rampant in every part of Yemeni society. However, the Yemeni government co-sponsored a resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council to formally make child marriage a human rights violation punishable under international law in 2015.
All Photographs and Captions by Stephanie Sinclair/ Too Young to Wed, Unless Otherwise Noted

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.

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Surita Shreshta Balami, 16, screams out in protest as the wedding procession carries her to her new home with Bishal Shreshta Balami, 15, in Kagati village, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, in January 2007. Early marriage is a practice common in Nepal, and the Kagati village, a Newar community, is known for its propensity toward this practice. Many Hindu families believe blessings will come upon them if they marry off their girls before their first menstruation.

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.

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”Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” Tahani (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 this portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their mountain home in Hajjah in 2010. Nearly half of all women in Yemen were married as children.

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.

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Aracely, 15, holds her child in 2014. According to a 2012 UN Population Fund survey, 30 percent of Guatemalan women age 20 to 24 were married by 18, and that number may be even higher in rural areas. Teenage births are so common that there’s even a law requiring mothers under 14 to have C-sections, because their hips are too narrow to give birth.

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.

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After celebrating with female relatives at a wedding party, Yemeni brides Sidaba, 11, and Galiyaah, 13, are veiled and escorted to a new life with their husbands in Sanaa, Yemen, 2010.

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.

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Durga Bahadur Balami, 17, puts vermillion on the head of nine-months-pregnant Niruta Bahadur Balami, 14, as they officially become man and wife in Kagati village, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, on January 23, 2007. Niruta moved in with Durga’s family and became pregnant when they were only engaged. In some circles of the more socially open Newar people, this is permissible.

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.

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Two young mothers hold their babies in the backseat of a Samburu Girls Foundation truck after the organization negotiated with community leaders in the village of Oldinyiro in Isiolo County, Kenya, to take them to their safe house. The young women had run away from their homes because their babies were threatened with death. The women were ”beaded,” a custom that acts as a temporary engagement for sexual purposes but where the mothers are not allowed to become pregnant. If they do, they will face a crude abortion or the baby will be killed. Photograph by Newsha Tavakolian

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.

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A woman tends to grain during the rainy season near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. The country has one of the highest rates of early marriage in the world, with one in two girls marrying before her 18th birthday and one in five girls marrying before the age of 15. However, things are slowly improving for Ethiopian girls as organizations work to change attitudes about early marriage and create an environment where girls can thrive.

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.

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Nujoud Ali, two years after her divorce from her husband at only eight years old. He was more than 20 years her senior. Nujoud’s story sent shock waves around Yemen and caused parliament to consider a bill writing a minimum marriage age into law.

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.