• PROOF:
  • February 26, 2016

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

Becky Harlan
Author
Becky Harlan

“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.

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.
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.

''I was rescued by the Samburu Girls Foundation because I was beaded by a moran [young warrior]," says Mercy, 13, pictured here. 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.''
”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
'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.''
‘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.

''When I was little, I was in school," says Mary, 11, seen in this portrait. "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.''
”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
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.''
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.”

''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, who posed for this portrait. "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.
”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,
'When I was ten years old, my father took me out of school and forced me to get married," says Nashaki, 11. "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.''
‘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.

There are 22 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Nicole Melancon
    March 8, 2016

    Stephanie Sinclair’s work is absolutely amazing! I’ve been so fortunate to have met her in person and have been completely inspired by her dedication to help these girls. Beautiful article!

  2. lindsay
    March 8, 2016

    Empowerment is everything.

  3. Marlene Hillock
    March 6, 2016

    These girls are the faces of the future! Their strength and courage is incredible.

  4. Martina C.
    March 6, 2016

    These girls are real warriors…..

  5. Fred Buluku
    March 5, 2016

    It real hurt me because we have politician who are supposed to educate the communities to do a way with other traditions and cultures which are not add value, they should initiate to bring change and civilization in the community, but they doing nothing,it’s not only Samburu which is affected even some areas in Maasai land and other part of coast community they don’t educate children,thank you for the rescue.

  6. lynn gail
    March 2, 2016

    Photography is such a powerful tool – this is an amazing story.

  7. Mimi Shulman
    March 2, 2016

    Beautiful! I hope they all reach their goals. It is such a good thing Samburu is doing.

  8. Tae-ick
    March 2, 2016

    Thank you for your story and effort!

  9. Junko Iwata
    March 1, 2016

    I really admire their courage and strength. These girls are making changes to make our world for the better. Lots of thanks for the girls and also the organizations who are helping them.

  10. Barb Tessier
    March 1, 2016

    I wish I were in my twenties once more. This is the kind of work I want to do; rescue young women from these outdated, abhorrent practices.

  11. Gretchen
    March 1, 2016

    This is such an amazing story! I hope each girl can achieve their dreams!!!

  12. Amanda
    March 1, 2016

    Blessings and healing to these children and let’s help to keep the good work coming. Thank you for the article.

  13. Ejnar Fjerdingstad
    February 29, 2016

    No society that treats women as lesser human beings should be considered civilized.

  14. Sonia Smith
    February 28, 2016

    It’s great that this school for Samburu girls helps the girls to live together in sisterhood and empower each other through their shared experience. No one else can understand the type of trauma they experienced. I hope their community will come to change its practices if child marriage and FGM .

  15. Raquel
    February 27, 2016

    The pictures are absolutely stunning! what an amazing project. congratulations, thankyou for giving a voice to this girls!

  16. Christine Fitzgerald
    February 27, 2016

    Beautiful images and good luck to the girls. Well done Fujifilm too.

  17. plkarie
    February 27, 2016

    There IS gender IN-equality ALL over the world and these courageous young women are powerful and dramatic voices and faces of change at some of the very desperate corners of the earth.
    Their voices will only get LOUDER!
    Thank goodness that the support is finally there. This has been going on for far too long. It’s time that women all over the world stand up, together and create and much better world.

  18. Susan Hayek-Kent
    February 26, 2016

    oh my lord, these beautiful young women. children.
    may they thrive.

  19. DuPe
    February 26, 2016

    Excellent…

  20. Michela
    February 26, 2016

    Thank you for sharing. Luckily sometimes there are people taking action and make possible to see some hope beyond the tragedy. Hope the best for them.

  21. Brian Allan
    February 26, 2016

    We in western society think we have problems with gender equality… Hopefully education will help those in the 3rd world?

    Thanks for sharing this story (and pix).

  22. Joan Churton
    February 26, 2016

    These young girls are so beautiful. Thank you for their story. I wish them well.

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