Photograph by Stephanie Sinclair
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Students try out their cameras for the first time during the inaugural Adolescent Girls Photography Workshop organized by Too Young to Wed in collaboration with the Samburu Girls Foundation in January 2016. All of the students had been rescued from child marriages with help from the SGF.
Photograph by Stephanie Sinclair

These Girls Escaped Child Marriage. Now They’re Raising Their Voices—and Cameras.

“Every two seconds a girl is married,” says photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who’s going on her 14th year of documenting the issue of child marriage. (See her photos of child brides in the 2011 National Geographic magazine story “Too Young To Wed.”) The issue has gained traction in the global conversation, but Sinclair knows that the girls affected need help now. “We have to make sure we’re reaching them on the ground,” she says. “It’s really important to walk the talk.”

In an effort to do that, Sinclair started a nonprofit, Too Young to Wed, in 2012. Just a few weeks ago it partnered with Fuji Film and the Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF)—an organization that rescues vulnerable girls from harmful practices in rural Kenya—to put on a photography workshop for ten girls between the ages of 11 and 14.

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Angela, 12, learns about light while taking a photo of Naramat, 12, her partner for the workshop. ”During this week, I came to realize that education can help us build our family and our future,” says Naramat. Photograph by Photo by Nicole Chan

At the beginning of the workshop, as Sinclair was showing the students her photography, she asked about their familiarity with child marriage. A girl named Angela raised her hand. She had run away when she heard she was going to be married off. Sinclair then asked if any of them had heard of a situation like Angela’s. The other nine girls raised their hands—they had all escaped marriage.

“Girl empowerment is one of the strongest prevention techniques to end child marriage,” says Sinclair. By teaching basic photography skills, the workshop affirmed the value of their voices and their stories—stories that many of the girls had never told. That soon changed.

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”I was rescued by the Samburu Girls Foundation because I was beaded by a moran [young warrior],” says Mercy, 13, pictured posing for her portrait. In the Samburu practice of beading, morans use red beads to mark young girls as “engaged” for sexual purposes. “When I wanted to go to school, my father refused. In the future, I want to be a bank manager, so I can get money and help other girls like me. I can afford to pay school fees for them and even sponsor them.” Photograph by by Eunice, 14
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‘I was married when I was very young,” says Maria, 14, pictured here. “I used to sell milk to get food and sleep in the forest because I [didn’t] have a place to sleep. Society should stop bad practices, because what I have been through was so hard for me. After my education, I would like to be a nurse so that I can help other girls like me.” Photograph by Modestar, 12

Their first assignment was to make a portrait of a partner. As Sinclair explains, “We paired them off into twos. To make a great portrait you have to know who you’re photographing; you have to share your story with your partner. Some girls had never shared their stories before. That was very powerful. We were a little taken aback when they had such an emotional reaction, but some of the girls who had shared their stories before said, ‘No, no. They need to do this.'”

A small, but dedicated operation, SGF has rescued almost 235 girls from traumatic situations. Its teams try their best to provide education for the girls, but they don’t have the resources to offer counseling. In its place, the photo workshop became a form of therapy, beginning the process of healing.

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”When I was little, I was in school,” says Mary, 11, pictured. “Then my father took me out and told me he would circumcise me and give me to an old man. So I told my mum that I was going to the toilet. I ran away to the bush and escaped, sleeping in the forest that night … In the morning, I woke up and ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I met a woman who took me to Samburu Girls Foundation. I have been here one year and a half.” Photograph by Saleno, 11
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Naramat, 12, sits for a portrait. ”I’m at the Samburu Girls Foundation because I had many challenges at home,” she says. “I wanted to go to school but no one would take me there. I am at peace because I am in school now. I want to be a teacher. A girl can be educated and be someone, like any other person in the world.” Photograph by Angela, 12

The vulnerability the girls exchanged is visible in the portraits they made. “It was really unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” says Sinclair. “The portraits that came out were quite powerful for girls who had only picked up the camera the day before. I think they found photography [to be] a way to communicate what they’d been through.”

The finale of the workshop was an exhibition of the photos, when each girl who wanted to had an opportunity to present her work and share her story. To prepare them, the teachers coached the girls to amplify not only their visual voices but also their speaking voices. Sinclair describes first meeting the girls, when many of them spoke in a whisper. “We were worried that their voices would be so soft the audience wouldn’t hear them,” she says. “The more confident they got, the louder they spoke.”

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”Today I learned a girl can do anything, that a boy and girl are equal—no one is more special—and I am happy about it,” says Eunice, 14, posing for her portrait above. “I learned how to take someone’s photo by using the light from the window. I learned I am creative and I can learn fast. I am happy that the new things I learned today [are] to be confident and be powerful.” Eunice shared her story, imploring the Samburu community to stop early marriage and female genital mutilation. Photograph by Mercy, 13,
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‘When I was ten years old, my father took me out of school and forced me to get married,” says Nashaki, 11, pictured here. “But … I wanted to study. When I finish my education, I would like to become a lawyer, because I would like to support the girls who have many challenges. I want to tell the world that anything is possible for a girl … My friend cried when she shared her story, but I know it also made her happy. It will not be forgotten. I love her.” Photograph by Jane, 12

The afternoon of the exhibition, about 70 people came—chiefs of the girls’ villages, some of their parents. “Each girl presented the photo they did of the other girl,” says Sinclair. “I left it up to them what they wanted to say about the photographs they did of their friends. Most of them shared their stories. All of them talked about what they wanted to be when they were older. And all of them talked about how they wanted to help the community and prevent girls from going through what they had gone through.”

“They got up there and screamed into the microphone so much that it was cracking: ‘My name is Jane. I am 12 years old. I have been circumcised, and my parents tried to marry me off.’ The audience was crying, the girls were crying. We were all crying. It’s almost like they were taking their power back and expressing all these things that they wanted to say for the first time to the public, to their community.”

Photographs from the Adolescent Girls Photography Workshop, organized by Too Young to Wed in collaboration with the Samburu Girls Foundation, are on view February 26, 2016, at the Family of Women Film Festival in Sun Valley, Idaho.