Throughout the world, more than 51 million girls below the age of 18 are currently married, even though it is outlawed in many developing countries and international agreements forbid the practice. The harmful traditional practice of child marriage spans continents, language, religion and caste.
Over an eight-year period Stephanie Sinclair investigated the phenomenon in India, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nepal and Ethiopia.
Apart from India, where girls are typically matched with boys four or five years older, the husbands may be young men, middle-aged widowers or even abductors who commit rape first. Some marriages are little more than business transactions: a debt cleared in exchange for an 8-year-old bride; a family feud resolved by the delivery of a virginal 12-year-old cousin.
Child marriage denies girls their right to education, restricts friendships with peers and perpetuates the cycle of poverty in their communities. In many cases, young married girls have little power in relation to their husbands and in-laws. They are therefore extremely vulnerable to domestic violence, which may include physical, sexual or psychological abuse. The experience of pregnancy is also traumatizing for a girl who is still a child herself. She is more likely to have obstructed labor as her small body may be compromised during childbirth. The pregnancy death rate for child brides is double that of women in their 20s.
It's estimated that over the next decade, 100 million more girls—or roughly 25,000 girls a day—will marry before they turn 18 if this issue is not urgently addressed.
This project was done in conjunction with National Geographic, which will have a feature story on child marriage in the June 2011 issue.