Stephanie Sinclair’s photography documents what many in the Western world regard as a day of celebration. Yet in places such as Afghanistan, India, or Ethiopia, the weddings Sinclair captures are sobering. At the heart of one photograph, like many others, is a young girl, not a day older than nine. She looks at the camera perplexed, appearing lonely amid the crowd that surrounds her. She is one of too many young girls who are married too young, who are denied education, who are placed in physically vulnerable positions, who become mothers before they are women themselves.
"Too Young to Wed," which opened last week at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York, spans 11 years of Sinclair’s photographic work on child marriage. She spoke with Women in the World about the urgent need for action.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Women in the World: You first came to this issue after reporting on Afghan women who were self-immolating, all former child brides. In your reporting, you conclude that this is a phenomenon that needs to stop, yet you also show that many times these young girls are wed not because they are unwanted or unloved but because their families think this is the best option they can offer their children, given that there is no other educational or cultural path for these girls to take. How did you make sense of the complexities of child marriage?
Stephanie Sinclair: First off, I definitely think that child marriage is bad for these girls. After 11 years of reporting on this, even though I understand the cultural nuances behind it and understand the valid concerns of these families, I know that there are other options and I believe it is our responsibility to push and make more of those options available. The main issue is that there is not enough community education. Besides standard primary education, there needs to be an increase in community education to give these families the tools to want to hold back the marriages of these girls.
WitW: Visiting these ceremonies for the past decade, was there one that particularly stuck with you?
SS: All of the weddings stuck with me because you know what’s to come. They are all unique and eye opening in different ways. In one wedding in India, three girls were getting married and the youngest was only five. This was the fist time I had seen the wedding of such a young girl. The other girls were older—13 and 15—and none of the grooms were older men. Only one of the grooms were 17 or 18 years old. So we are not talking about the same type of underage marriage with very old men, but it is still important to document this because it shows a couple of things. First, that the girls are indeed married at that age. One thing I kept hearing is that doesn't happen any more, but it does—I just needed have the photographic poof to show that to people. The other thing that is important is showing these group weddings. They are done because of the financial burden of even having a wedding. These very young girls are often married when relatives also have arrangements. Families wait for the oldest girls to get to an age where she has to be married, while the youngest is “just old enough” to get married. So these ceremonies span that whole age group.
WitW: What role do the husbands play in these arrangements?
SS: To be honest I didn't talk as much to the men, particularly the ones who were older—they were less forthcoming. Especially if they were older, they were more aware that I might be critical of what was happening. They tried to be as nice as they could but they weren’t really talkative. I talked to the father of one of the young girls I met from Afghanistan, and he said to me, “do you think that I want to marry my daughter off this at this age?” I think she was between 8 and 11 and she was marrying a man who was as old as her father. He was pained and ashamed that he was doing this, but it was his and his wife’s decision. They felt they needed to justify what was happening—it was an economic decision, according to them. With all the families I was photographing, I never told anyone that what they were doing was wrong, but they often felt the need to defend what they were doing. I do think there are cultural and financial pressures, but in many parts of the world girls simply don't have their rights. They are not valued as equal human beings. There is a fight going on globally for women to still have their basic human rights, and child marriage is part of that fight.
WitW: Criminalizing the practice has done little to address the larger systematic issues of education and poverty these children face. From your experience, what do you think is the most vital action that needs to be taken to combat child marriage?
SS: It requires complexity. The problem is both cultural, economic, and education based. It is illegal in many countries, but it needs to be approached from all angles. You can't just address one and expect for it to stop. For one, these laws need to be enforced like any other. If someone breaks into your house, you tell the police. Like murder, rape, burglary, if you don't prosecute these crimes, more people will commit them. The fact that these laws are in the books, but not implemented, certainly creates an environment where these practices will proliferate. There has been a lot of great awareness. That's where the photography really plays a role—its not stage acting, its real. It calls people to get involved in a different way. The numbers are astounding—the UNFPA said 39,000 girls are married a day. But it takes seeing the face of just one, horrified because they are about to marry a stranger three times their age, to want to do something, to picture yourself in her shoes. I'm excited that there is such awareness, but I think we need more than promises. We need action. We need to truly make an effort to get these programs into the rural areas, where this issue happens. I had to walk four hours each way on foot to get to some of these villages. To get money and education into these areas, there needs to be someone who is willing to go all the way to where this is happening, in the villages. These are real girls. Any of us could have been born into this situation. If I were in their position, I would hope that people born with more resources would try to stop what happening to me. I think that is the role we are called to do.
WitW: You would not have been able to meet these girls if you were a man. In a way, we need women to go and speak for these girls.
SS: Yes, especially in conservative societies. I hope people understand that child marriage isn’t just about child marriage. It involves every single injustice that hits women and holds them back, and that's why I have devoted such a long time to it. It holds back their education. It makes them physically vulnerable. There was a gynecologist who told me, “in your country, girls are starting their lives at this age. In ours, their lives are ending.” We are responsible for making sure we are doing as much as we can for that not to happen. Just like every other human rights issue, like apartheid or civil rights, it is real and important to the people who are going through it. And the only reason it’s happening to these girls is because they are girls. That is the takeaway I want to put out there—these girls are being discriminated against. Their lives are being held back because they are girls. This issue isn’t going to be resolved in a couple years. Maybe in our lifetime. Just like we fought for civil rights 50 years ago and racism is still a huge issue in our country, no single thing will solve this. People are just figuring out its an issue. We’ve started, but we have a long way to go.
This article was corrected for grammatical and spelling errors. The writer incorrectly quoted "The Pew Center said 39,000 girls are married a day." In fact, the interviewee said it was the UNFPA. Additonally, the writer incorretly quotes "self-emulating." The interviewee said "self-immolating."