• September 14, 2015

Documenting Child Marriage for Over a Decade—and Still Going

Becky Harlan

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.

A girl with a red veil covering her face screams out as she is carried to the home of her new husband in Kagati, Nepal
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.

two very young child brides pose with their much older husbands in Yemen
”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.

A 15-year-old girl nurses her child son in Guatemala
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.

young brides veiled in black walk down a hill after a wedding party with female relatives, escorted to a new life with their husbands
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.

picture of a 17-year-old groom putting vermillion on the forehead of his bride, nine-months pregnant, fourteen-year-old Niruta Bahadur Balami, in Kagati, Nepal
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.

two young women from the oldinyiro village in kenya hold their babies in the back of a truck as they go to safe house to protect their infants from death
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.

a woman tends to grain during the rainy season near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
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.

a young girl holds up a pink scarf in the wind, and looks at the sky, smiling, she has been recently divorced from her husband who was 20 years her senior
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.

There are 47 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Madison
    June 1, 2016

    when I saw that Tahani had been married at the age of 6 I thought I was going to throw up. I knew that girls were getting married at the age of 10 but I had yet to see anything lower than that and foolishly hoped that 10 would be the youngest. For more stats and stories about child marriages, you can check out my class blog endchildmarriages.weebly.com

  2. Ashma
    April 1, 2016

    It is painful to see the girls in the pictures with babies in her hands instead of books,
    It brings tears to find her friends attending her wedding instead of playing and studying in schools.
    What customs have we made and how blindly we follow it knowing that it will not at all benefit anyone. Let us SAVE our girls.

  3. Yumeng
    March 6, 2016

    I want to participate in this noble mission.

    October 5, 2015

    The photos say it all…, The three photographs that sums up the entire story are with the following captions

    1. “Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” speaks in volumes about the physical suffering of little girls not to say about the mental trauma

    2. “Aracely, 15, holds her child in 2014.” The photograph truly captures the questions and worries of a dark and bleak future in her eyes, and

    3. “Nujoud Ali, two years after her divorce from her husband at only eight years old.” The joy of Freedom is written large all over her face and specially shining in her eyes.

    The practice is slowly dieing but a very slow death, In India where this is still prevailing, often ‘the husband’ and ‘the wife’ both are too young to know what all this mean when it happened to them.

    The hope is there and the only way out is education. The sooner we spread the light of knowledge, the sooner these dark practices will fade.

    Thank you Stephanie Sinclair, your efforts surely will help in eradication of this horrible practice of sending the innocent girls to their slow death. Btw, have you ever interviewed the grooms of these ‘too young to wed’ about how they treated their brides, what were the social pressures and what their heart felt like? The change has to come from them as they only can stop this this barbaric practice, if they say no to such marriages.

  5. Victor
    October 4, 2015

    Very sad, but true!! For a change in such horrible practice, the governments of the countries where such practices continue must not only join, but must be forefront in the fight against such practices! Poor communities suffer most in these areas,but if the practices are made by legislature illegal, then culprits can be subject to trial and suffer the consequences when found guilty!!

  6. Michel Ameruoso (male, 54 y.o., from CCS)
    September 29, 2015

    no valid argument, NONE, to sell or give away a daughter or son at any age, let alone in infaltil age, this is a horrendous and unacceptable practice, we are not in the prehistoric era, not worth religious or cultural or extremely poor arguments , religions and cultures with such savage practices will disappear sooner rather than later as we get involved pression to teach to eliminate ignorance.

  7. Anna
    September 28, 2015

    @cliff, thank you for the tip on the Dancing Boys film. I just pulled it up to watch.
    @Stephanie: You and your dedicated team are heroes for doing this. As a child sexual abuse survivor of many years, I see no difference in the two. The long term affects are horrifying, luckily were I live there was therapy, I can only hope these girls (and their society) starts realizing the long term affect and emotional scares this practice inflicts. Bless you all for your efforts.

  8. Cliff
    September 28, 2015

    A documentary several years ago show that men in those countries love small boys also–a documentary about “dancing boys” showed all male village elders wre sitting around lusting foe a very young bopy who had been purchased then sent to be trained in atr of dancing for men–as well as becoming sex object — It appears that Satan has no boundaries

  9. Jaime (male)
    September 28, 2015

    It´s not only disgusting but horrible practice, let the child enjoy their childhood and let them be whatever they want.

  10. AS
    September 28, 2015

    I am from India and such practices are very much prevalent in our country. I am horrified to learn that child marriage is common in 50 countries around the world. I am 25, unmarried, and feel so thankful to be brought up in a family where I am allowed to do what I like without question. I wish I could do something to save these girls and thousands more who are awaiting such a horrific fate.

  11. Jude
    September 28, 2015

    Rae, I’m not a man but I can honestly speak for the men I know well. I prefer my friends to be intelligent, knowledgeable and compassionate. Every single one of them either are, or would be once they were told, thoroughly disgusted and angry over any child (regardless of gender) being cruelly treated like this.

  12. Ross
    September 28, 2015

    As far as I’m concern ALL the males that married the underage girls are pedophiles> Sorry but I’m calling it what it is.

  13. Rae Zimmerman
    September 27, 2015

    I notice most of the comments here are from women. What DO men think about this brutal practice?

  14. Jude
    September 27, 2015

    Not all parents who marry iff their daughters young want it that way. Few of us have any idea what social conditions are like in other cultures. Desperately poor families, through NO fault of their own, end up indebted to wealthier older men who’ll claim a family’s young daughter as part of the payment. They make it impossible for the poor family to find enough to eat and the means to live otherwise.

    As Stephanie said, the issue manifests differently in different countries with variations in practice. One cut and dried solution can’t be applied in each situation except to say the practice of child marriages absolutely needs to be stopped.

  15. Mariette
    September 27, 2015

    What is it with so many men everywhere that they use their superior physical strength to exploit and subjugate women? I think it is based on their fear of women and the sexual power they have. Men have never been good at controlling their animalistic urges and it is pure selfishness on their part to ensure their urges can be gratified, never mind the lives of the girls and women they ruin. By denying them education and freewill, these cowardly, selfish men deny their women the right to life. It is time thinking men stood up against their brethren and exposed the gross injustice they perpetrate.

    From a spiritual perspective, we reap what we sow (karma). Perhaps abused women were abusing males in previous lives, and the abusing males in this life may have their just rewards awaiting them so that they can experience what it is like to be on the receiving end. We don’t see the bigger picture, but just know that there is a reason for everything.

    Thank you, Stephanie, you are very brave and selfless.

  16. Gail
    September 27, 2015

    May God continue to bless you and your necessary work. I grieve for those children.

  17. Kristine
    September 27, 2015

    Hello men out there. Why aren’t you responding to this article. We need to work together to make this a better world. You need to care.

    • Samir
      September 28, 2015

      @Rae, there were a few but not too many men commenting, I was one of the men who commented. The issue of child marriage isn’t a simple issue of male superiorty, its goes much deeper and is defined by social and cultural values where these practises do continue. It not to say that such practises arent abhorrent and disgusting and have no place in mordern society, a lot of help can come from the Governments itself if they can pass stringent laws to ban these practises, and ofcourse have a mechanism to ensure that the ban works. Secondly NGOs could pitch in and educate such communities where the practise still flourishes unhindered. Thirdly education is the need of the hour, better access to quality education will help people from these communities to value the girl child more than just washing their hands off them, atleast thats one of the intentions of child marriage.

  18. Bill Mevers
    September 27, 2015

    The horrible, tragic and brutal reality is that deep-seated, ingrained cultural rituals and beliefs are perceived by their practitioners and peers as normal, beneficial, good practices.

    In this county, child marriages, polygamy, child labor, slavery, some religious practices, etc. were once seen by many as acceptable in parts of our society. Hindsight says they were wrong.

    Unjust discrimination of women, races, and sexual preference have long existed in the history of this country and the world. They still exist to this day. Thankfully they are evolving.

    When one becomes aware of such conditions, should they not stand up for change? The silent majority may have thought these practices wrong, even abhorrent, yet few took action to make a difference.

    Our quest for individual freedom must stop at the crossroad of infringing on the rights of others.

    It takes persons of insight, vision and courage to promote changes. It is a long, lonesome, and frustrating process. It is an evolution, seldom a revolution, and often takes many decades,

    Bless those who shine the light in the darkness of inhumanity; they carry the torch of change.
    Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King come to mind.

    Stephanie Sinclair is one of the shining lights who nudge, push, and create a shift to change such unjust behavior and will probably never be in the spotlight.

    She is one of the heroes. Many others dedicate their lives to the cause; most are unsung heroes and may never be recognized or appreciated.

    Bless them for they are good.

  19. Maxine de Villefranche
    September 27, 2015

    The war against women goes on all over the world. It is just amazing that the most important half of the world’s population can be so subjugated and exploited. It is absolutely sickening to realize that all these young children (some are married at 6 years old) are raped and molested by grown men who have no qualms about scarring a little girl for life. I wish I could say they are all Muslims, but some are Catholics too. So it really has nothing to do with religion, but all to do with parents trying to unload their girl child onto another family and the male urge to have sex at any cost.

  20. mariapia kao
    September 27, 2015

    I no all about ….I was in side one fort were the women live in a place whit kids …and men ..live …in a different apart ……women place was very poor children on the crud flour and dirty … were there the live forever no chance to get out never ….once…..a very yang girl married …pas by….. and wee can see her ….one second …..later I start ear screaming and cry and i went to see at the door close ..beaning…. but i can see in one broken piece of woods .of the door………all the women in side that apart… they have put this girl we see ….in a centre of one wood bed …whit all the little children around ….her and then …try to cover them …..all the other women cry an scream because ..one men Her husband bet her …with a big piece of bambu ‘ ….and off courses beat all the one are around….I never forgot all the story about …..like if the men don’t want’ any more a wife …i can only saying tree time ..I don’t want you any-more. …… and He can throw her in the street wet out her children ….an if the father ( of her) don’t take back …..Very difficult because the are poor …..she will die in the street nobody help a repudiate women …. no God for the poor women in to many country

  21. Tanya
    September 27, 2015

    Thank you Stephanie for volunteering to step into this world of child marriage and educate us on this important issue. Though I’m not shocked at its existence, I am staggered by the statistics. As a female it hurts me knowing that equality is still not met around the world, and child marriage and sex slavery are the most brutal ways in showing this. Education and safety is so important to all children. For a practice like child marriage to exist I can only imagine that it was developed so that men could take all rights from women and own them. Girls would never be seen as burdens if they were allowed to be educated and make their own living. So I want to help much more than just simply donating. I’m from Australia. I want to know what the most useful skills to gain to help end this practice.

  22. Amy
    September 27, 2015

    It is a hard topic to hear or take photos of. Heartbreaking,

  23. Gary
    September 27, 2015

    sick, mentally ill civilizations

  24. Stephanie Sinclair
    September 25, 2015

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments on this very difficult subject. For those who asked, yes, I have covered the issue of child marriage in India. Please see the Nat Geo article we did from 2011.


    I want to add that Too Young To Wed is looking for people who want to share their personal experience with child marriage. It could be your own marriage or it could be your parents’ or grandparents,’ or even a story about the what your community is doing to end the practice. Contact me at stephanie[at]tooyoungtowed.org with yours. Thank you again for your support and kind words.

  25. Anupreeta Chatterjee
    September 20, 2015

    I want to participate in this noble mission.

  26. Kawt
    September 18, 2015

    Let’s just call it how it is.
    Utterly disgusting.

  27. deb
    September 16, 2015

    I feel so helpless and heartbroken for those little ones. I wish to help.

  28. samir
    September 16, 2015

    You missed documenting India, child marriages are still prevalent here, and has in most cased societal approvals

  29. Anna
    September 16, 2015

    Yes, it seems like men are rapists. But, what about the parents of these girls? How do they allow these things to be happened?

  30. Delicia
    September 16, 2015

    To know that child marriage still happens disgust so deeply in my soul. I remember my very happy childhood and those little girls have non. What do their patentes think?

  31. TealRose
    September 15, 2015

    A very sad and heartwarming article too. Slowly (too slowly) the dreadful practise of children being forced to marry and bear children is stopping. But then, I would have liked to have heard more of how the men feel about this? Especially once they know of the damage and dangers to a little girl who becomes pregnant. Do they worry? Do they even CARE ? Or are there enough little girls that to lose a wife or two is par for the course ?

    Thank you Stephanie Sinclair for your hard work…

  32. Jean Webster
    September 15, 2015

    Thank you Stephanie for keeping on faithfully with this task. early marriages are increasing here in Zimbabwe and we are seeking to address the same in our orphan organisation. standing with you Stephanie.

  33. Suzy
    September 15, 2015

    To contemplate the lives these precious children live is hard to comprehend!
    Thank you, Stephanie, for making us more and more aware of this self-serving practice!
    My thoughts and prayers are with you, and these children, as you continue with this mission!

  34. Carrie
    September 15, 2015

    Breaks my heart to see what these young girls must endure. Thank you for bringing this travesty to the foreground!

  35. D Hazard
    September 15, 2015

    What kind of a man wants to marry a little girl? A pedophile. Is religion at the root of this? Very backward, indeed.

  36. Deji
    September 15, 2015

    Great job, a lot of this is happening in my country – Nigeria. Federal lawmakers are even at the forefront and are making efforts to smuggle it into the law.

  37. maryam
    September 15, 2015

    i admire your work! my mother was also a victim of this, i am 30 and she is just 15 years old older than me! although she managed to progress in her life despite all of the problems and now she is professionally successful but she always alas for the the teenager and youth that she could never experience as a girl.
    it is all the matter of education! once these women would become educated they would not let it happen to the next generation.

  38. Devaki Khanna
    September 15, 2015

    Stephanie, have you come across any cases of child marriage in India?

  39. Rachel
    September 15, 2015

    Im speechless. How can this be happening. Well done Stephanie on pursuing this important discussion world wide. Every bit helps these defenceless young girls.

  40. Maisha
    September 15, 2015

    How can we help to end child marriage? I’d like to get involved; I’m so sorry to all the young women and men sent off to be married against their wills.

  41. Emmanuelle
    September 14, 2015

    Stéphanie, I very much respect and admire your work.

  42. GEORGE
    September 14, 2015

    YOU WOULD THINK THERE SHOULD be more comments this is very important these men are rapist

  43. Helen McParlane
    September 14, 2015

    Stephanie your photographs and work against this terrible situation for young women is very inspiring. Your photographs also make it very real and not just a story

  44. Maggie Iha-Petersen
    September 14, 2015

    Thank you for stopping and taking notice of these girls, our children!

  45. Jana
    September 14, 2015

    a legal pedophilia. horrible!!! disgusting and unacceptable!!!

  46. Donna
    September 14, 2015

    Heartbreaking indeed! Glad people are working to bring change!

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