Using Photography to Combat Child Marriage: An Interview with Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair
Too Young to Wed, a nonprofit organization, traces its official launch back to October 11, 2012 – the first International Day of the Girl Child. Dignitaries from around the world gathered at the United Nations in New York City that day and, surrounded by photographs of child brides as young as 5, pledged to do whatever it took to end child marriage.
But the campaign’s roots stretch back another decade, to Herat, Afghanistan, where visual journalist Stephanie Sinclair was working on a story about girls and women who set themselves on fire. There, she discovered a disturbing pattern among the scarred patients in the hospital’s burn ward: Most of them had been forced into marriage as children. Horrified to learn that child marriage was common in communities throughout the world, Sinclair dedicated the next 10 years of her life to documenting the practice in the hopes of inspiring change.
Photography has the power to ignite change and spur action, and that's exactly what Women Deliver spoke to Sinclair about in the interview below.
Child marriage occurs in more than 50 countries worldwide, and at least 39,000 girls are married every day—that’s one girl every two seconds
As a photographer, I am sure you have been exposed first hand to many human tragedies. Why did you decide to take up the issue of child marriage, and not some other issue?
That’s correct. I have a background as a conflict photographer and I cut my teeth, as many of us did, covering the invasion of Iraq in 2002 as a unilateral. But even then, my goal was to tell the story of civilians, women and children mostly, who were caught in the crossfire.
The following year, while in Afghanistan on a different assignment, I was horrified to come across several girls who, inexplicably, had set themselves on fire. Needing to know why I started asking many questions. I learned that one of the reasons inspiring these girls to commit such a drastic act was child marriage; many had been married very young—9, 10, 11. These girls had endured such physical and emotional trauma that they actually preferred a horrible death than to continue the lives they had been living.
I was, of course, naïve, assuming things like child marriage no longer occurred in the world. Leaning otherwise in such an intimate way shook me to my core. After a revelation like that, how can one just forget what they’ve experienced and move on to the next assignment? It wasn’t possible. That’s how the Too Young to Wed project began.
Subsequently, the more I pursued the phenomenon, the more the issue just kept unraveling before me. Child marriage occurs in more than 50 countries worldwide, and at least 39,000 girls are married every day—that’s one girl every two seconds! Child marriage is dangerous because it abruptly curtails adolescence, forcing girls out of school and into adult roles. As cheap sources of labor and sex in their new homes, child brides remain socially isolated from their peer groups, working long hours and risking injury and death from pregnancies they are neither psychologically nor physically prepared to endure. These are pretty compelling reasons to focus on this issue over another, wouldn’t you say?
“My life would be ruined,” said Rajyanti, who at 16 resisted her parents’ efforts to marry her off. “I refused the marriage because I want to study and be something.”
Clearly, the lack of images of child marriage accompanying their advocacy was a problem that needed fixing. So I went to work fixing it.
Why is photography such a powerful medium to combat child marriage ? How does Too Young to Wed merge the two?
When I first set out to work on this project, there were a handful of people and organizations who were trying to bring the issue to the world's attention, but it was mostly just numbers and data. Because people are the way they are, this didn’t capture people’s attention and the issue wasn’t getting the traction it deserved. Clearly, the lack of images of child marriage accompanying their advocacy was a problem that needed fixing. So I went to work fixing it.
Too Young to Wed has really helped people to understand what child marriage looked like and the true human cost of ignoring the practice. Through still photography and short films, we’ve helped propel the issue into the consciousness of the international community. And that’s been an absolute thrill to watch.
In our Adolescent Girls Photography Workshops, we’ve even started to turn the process inside-out. In these five-day innovative workshops, we use our core strength, photography, to help girls who have escaped early marriage or are at-risk of being married find their individual voices and realize their personal value. Participants not only gain skills become amateur photojournalists, they also learn tools to manage and overcome trauma from child marriage, learn how to express themselves and stand up for their rights in their communities, and become advocates for other girls in the community.
I asked the group if they had experienced a situation like Angela’s. To my dismay, all nine girls raised their hands— each had escaped their marriage.
Can you talk about some of the girls who have been involved in the program and the impact it has had on them?
TYTW held our inaugural Adolescent Girls Photography Workshop in early 2016, in Kenya with attendees coming from the Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF), an organization that rescues and shelters local girls fleeing child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). I initially steered away from sharing with our young students my photographs of child marriage because I feared it may prove too traumatic for them; that it would hit too close to home based on their experiences. However, at the SGF’s encouragement, I ultimately did. And I'm forever grateful because it opened a door to an incredible dialogue.
I asked the attendees about their familiarity with child marriage. A girl named Angela raised her hand, spurred on by the slideshow and eager to tell me her story. Upon overhearing she was to be married off, she ran away from home. I asked the group if they had experienced a situation like Angela’s. To my dismay, all nine girls raised their hands— each had escaped their marriage.
The girls all shared the circumstances under which they'd escaped their arranged marriages, and by the time the session ended and the girls paired off for intimate portrait sessions, you could practically reach out and touch the bond this catharsis created among the group. At the community exhibition of the girls’ photos that concluded the workshop many opted to share these stories in public too. They shouted them, in fact, angry about what had been done to them.
By the end, the girls, the staff, the audience -- everyone was in tears. We’d witnessed the girls taking their power back in their own way by expressing all these things that they’d kept bottled up, unsure of how express it. For all of us, it was an experience we’ll never forget.
Ending child marriage is a complicated endeavor, that touches on a number of social and cultural issues. What kind of obstacles has Too Young to Wed had to overcome to be welcomed into communities?
Indeed, it’s an incredibly intersectional issue. Agriculture, economics, obstetrics, religion, and on and on… all of them have some sway over the existence and prevalence of child marriage. This is actually helpful for getting access to communities where child marriage exists. There are so many ways to talk to people about the issue and how it affects them. It definitely opens doors that would otherwise remain closed.
From a practical perspective, though, it’s important to note that we don’t work where we’re not invited. Courageous community members seeking change routinely help our team get the access we need to document the practice and its effects. That’s not to say the entire community rolls out the red carpet for us. Plenty of people are heavily invested in maintaining their status quo. When we get this kind of pushback, we often have local medical and social professionals on hand to help explain the myriad of ways the practice actually hurts communities and holds them back. This kind of eye opener is extremely helpful for eroding antagonism.
What comes next for Too Young to Wed?
We’re currently in the middle of our latest multimedia piece, a look at child marriage used as a weapon of war in Nigeria, which will be published by the New York Times in January. We are also putting the finishing touches on our next Adolescent Girls Photography Workshop in Maralal, Kenya. You can learn more about, and help support, the workshop at our page on the Global Giving website, here: goto.gg/24678
Stephanie Sinclair, born in 1973, is an American photojournalist known for gaining unique access to sensitive gender and human rights issues around the world. After university, Sinclair worked for the Chicago Tribune, which sent her to cover the lead up to the war in Iraq. She later moved to the Middle East covering the region for six years as a freelance photographer.