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Photojournalist Captures the World of Child Brides

July 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The practice of child marriage is far more common throughout the world than many might suspect. Stephanie Sinclair has spent nearly a decade photographing communities where the practice occurs. Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with Sinclair about her work.
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GWEN IFILL: At the NewsHour online, we have posted a story tonight about child marriage, a practice that is far more common than you would think.

Hari Sreenivasan speaks with a photographer who has investigated the phenomenon across several continents.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than 50 million girls under the age of 17 are already married in developing countries. And 100 million more are expected to marry in the next decade.

Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair has traveled to Yemen, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, and Ethiopia, documenting the practice of child marriage. Over the past eight years, she’s gained intimate access to families and child brides, who can be as young as 5 years old at the time of marriage.

Her photographs were recently featured in “National Geographic” magazine in a story called “Too Young to Wed.”

She joins me now.

Thanks for being with us.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR, “National Geographic”: Thank you for having me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The story that — of the 5-year-old little girl in India that was being led off to her wedding was so powerful. You were looking at that girl while she’s being carried on her shoulders, just like any other 5-year-old girl would. But what was that — what was that scene like?

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: Yes, that was a very, very intense situation. It was a wedding that was held at about 4:00 in the morning.

And they held in secret because it’s technically illegal to have underage marriage — underage marriages in India. But it’s not really enforced, but just out of protection. Especially when they’re very young like that, they have them in the middle of the night.

And Rajani was sleeping. She had gone to sleep much earlier. And they literally woke her up and put her over the uncle’s shoulder, and then took her to her wedding.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the key drivers behind it? Is it just about geography? Is it just about country? Is it just about religion? Why is it still happening?

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: It’s happening for a lot of reasons.

I would say the primary one is still poverty. It happens — in my experience, I have seen it where there’s lack of communication, lack of roads, lack of schools. So, these are parts of the world where it’s not very developed.

But there’s other — there’s traditional issues that are involved. There are — religion has always been a justifier in almost every situation I have been in, regardless of whether it was Islamic or Hindu or Christian weddings. There was some sort of justification why it was allowed to happen.

And that’s what makes this issue such a difficult one to deal with and some — one that’s a bit taboo. People don’t really want to get involved because they feel like, oh, well, this might ruffle feathers in a kind of more profound way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So many of these girls that are in these systems are not educated at all. There’s a paragraph that says that the nurses were in some circumstances describing reproductive health practices while a young girl was in active labor, just telling her what was going on.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: This is absolutely true.

In fact, I spoke with a gynecologist in Hajjah, this area of Yemen. And she told me that most of the girls had no idea what was going on with their bodies. They knew very little about reproductive health. I spoke to an 8-year-old girl named Tahani who is sexually active with her husband, and — who’s in his late 20s, early 30s — and she didn’t have any idea how babies were made, about anything.

She just thought that you just get pregnant and have a baby. But she — you know, she had been to only a few years of school and didn’t have an opportunity to learn that from anybody.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, I have got to ask, as a reporter or as a photographer, how did you get access here, and how did you develop a level of trust where you could be so intimate with these characters?

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: Well, I have been working on this project for a long time. So I have been able to show people in the communities the work I have already done. And they can see that — I hope they can see that it’s been done with respect and care for the communities and care for the people, the girls in the situation, but also the people who want this practice to stop.

And every time that I have been granted access, it was because there was someone within the community, in — within those families who were willing to grant us permission, who didn’t necessarily like the practice, but just felt like that it was beyond their control, they had to participate, and so — but they wanted their voices to be heard.

And I had actually one mother in Afghanistan who — I photographed the engagement of a young girl, 11-year-old girl, to a man in his 50s. And the mother was crying and telling me, you know, “We don’t have enough food to feed the rest of our children. We’re selling our girls.”

So, I mean, the families want attention to this issue, at least on some level, either through — because they’re worried about poverty and lack of education and not having any other options, or because they, too, were married at very young ages.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there a community-based solution that’s working in some of these communities? I think the knee-jerk reaction, a lot of people say, well, gosh, can’t we just take them out and immediately rescue them somewhere?

But is there something a little bit more systemic that’s working?

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: For sure schools are the best answer. But it’s not just schools just for regular education. I think educating the societies, those communities, those villages, about reproductive health, about the consequences of early marriage are just as important as regular primary education.

In Yemen, one of the biggest issues is, there’s — they have — they don’t have very many schools, and the ones they do have, have very few women teachers. So, the young girls can’t go because there’s no women teachers. So, it’s difficult, but I think education of the communities on a — on a basic education level for the children and for the families is important.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Stephanie Sinclair.

The story is in “National Geographic” magazine in the June issue. It’s called “Too Young to Wed.”

Thanks so much for your time.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: Thank you so much for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephanie Sinclair’s story was part of the Untold Stories Project at the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. You can find more of her images and stories by following the link on our website.