“Stephanie Sinclair has spent the last decade documenting some of the world’s most controversial subjects, from Yemen’s child brides to Texas’s polygamists. But her goal is simple: to record what is in front of her and pass as little judgement as possible”. Her beautiful photographs take us in and make us want to help change the tragic realities we are seeing. Her work also inspires hope that change is possible.
In October, I had the honor of attending the ONE Women and Girls inaugural AYA Summit in Washington DC. The summit was an inspiring two days filled with some of the world’s leading speakers and do-gooders who advocate the rights of women and girls in the developing world.
On the first morning of the summit, I had the fortuitous opportunity to met a woman who has inspired me for years, award-wining photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair. Sinclair’s famous photo of Nujood Ali, who stunned the world in 2008 by obtaining a divorce in Yemen at age 10, graces the cover of National Geographic’s “Women of Vision” which I have sitting next to me in my office as inspiration.
I had the pleasure of seeing Sinclair’s work on display at the National Geographic’s “Women of Vision” exhibit at their headquarters last fall and left mesmerized by her beautiful, thought-provoking photography. Little did I know that a year later, I would find myself sitting right next to Sinclair at the AYA Summit. Talk about fate.
Stephanie Sinclair’s work has taken her all over the world. On assignment with National Geographic, Sinclair has been to some of the most remote, hidden worlds imaginable. Places that few people rarely see. Some places even dangerous but for Sinclair her perseverance and passion to let the voiceless be heard hasn’t stopped her.
“The worst day is not when my safety is at risk, it’s when I can’t get the pictures I want. You have a chance to get voices heard, so every day counts.”
It was during a trip to Herat, Afghanistan over a decade ago working on an assignment of self-immolation that Sinclair first encountered the unimaginable: The practice of child marriage. There within the burn ward talking with scarred patients, Sinclair discovered that many of the girls who had set themselves on fire were forced into marriage as children. Horrified by what she saw, Sinclair realized that she could not turn a blind eye and her passion for documenting, understanding and telling the stories of child brides has turned her into an advocate to inspire hope and change against the practice of child marriage.
The tragic reality that Sinclair uncovered that day in an Afghanistan burn ward was not just a random event. In fact, the practice of child marriage is widespread and difficult to track. It is estimated that every day over 39,000 weddings take place involving an underage bride, in over 50 countries. Today, there are over 64 million girls forced into marriage before age 18 and if the trends continue, it is estimated that 142 million children will be married by 2020. Out of the child brides, 1 in 9 girls is forced into marriage before her 15th Birthday, and some girls are married off as early as five or six years old.
“Whenever I saw him, I hid,” admits an eight-year old Yemeni girl (pictured below in pink) with her husband, recalling the early days of marriage at six.
The consequences are tragic. Imagine a child getting married before she has finished school or fully developed her reproductive anatomy. She will become uneducated making her more likely to remain in a life of poverty. She will be at a higher risk of being physically abused, contacting AIDS and other diseases, and dying while pregnant or giving birth. Least we forget these girls are children and the psychological damage that early marriage and parenthood inflicts upon them damages them even further.
The practice of child marriage is heartbreaking yet sadly it is also quite complicated to end. The more Sinclair witnesses the practice, the more she tries to understand it and portray it without passing judgment. She has found that each culture handles the practice differently and despite international treaties and laws forbidding child marriage, it still is rampant and is difficult to stop.
As a culmination of her work, in 2012 Sinclair launched Too Young to Wed, a non-profit organization, that employs visual media, photography exhibits and campaigns to educate and engage the public about the visual evidence of child marriage along with trying to tackle the complicated issues surrounding these practices. The centerpiece of Too Young to Wed’s advocacy work is a media campaign featuring Sinclair’s work aimed at raising awareness of the problem, supporting the girls who have already been married as children and trying to halt the practice of child marriage. Too Young to Wed‘s traveling photo exhibit has traveled all over the world and Sinclair’s 2011 10-minute documentary, “Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides“, has reached millions.
The film, “Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides” combines Sinclair’s amazing photojournalism along with the powerful storytelling of writer, Cynthia Gorney. Together the duo investigate the world of prearranged child marriage, where girls as young as five are forced to wed. It is an extremely powerful piece.
I highly recommend watching this video. It will leave you stunned, saddened and determined to do whatever you can to stop the practice of child marriage. The story of the three child brides, sisters Radha (15) and Gora (13) and their five-year-old niece Rajani is heartbreaking. To read the story on National Geographic, click here.
Despite the immense difficulty of covering such a tragic topic as child marriage, Sinclair has found hope. Since she began working on child marriage over a decade ago, she has witnessed change and a lot of the changes taking place are thanks to Sinclair’s amazing work and dedication to raising awareness on the issue.
Sinclair has traveled tirelessly to Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Ethiopia and Yemen – countries where the practice is widespread – and has seen change before her very eyes which has been incredibly rewarding. In India, Sinclair found girls who refused their early marriages, in Yemen ten-year-old Nujood was granted a divorce, and more girls staying in school. The changes have inspired Stephanie to continue her tenacious work and advocacy to end the practice of child marriage around the world. It is not an easy feat but for someone as passionate and devoted to the cause as Sinclair, change will continue to happen and more girls will be able to enjoy their childhoods. Marriage can wait.
The UN says that child marriage holds back 15 million girls a year, or about 41,000 a day, denying them fundamental rights and undermining their future.
If there is no reduction in child marriage, 1.2 billion minor girls will be married by 2050 — equivalent to the entire population of India.
“It undermines women’s and girls’ autonomy and decision-making in all aspects of their lives and continues to be an impediment to improvements in the education, economic and social status of women and girls in all parts of the world,” the resolution adds.
India is the world’s child marriage capital. It has record number of child brides — about 24 million. This represents 40% of the 60 million world’s child marriages.