My first encounter with child marriage occurred in 2003. I was working on a story about self-immolation in Afghanistan. I was stunned at what I discovered—no fewer than 10 girls and young women in Herat had inexplicably set themselves on fire. Each survivor gave a different reason as to why she would do such a thing. One 15-year-old broke her husband’s television set; another got in an argument with her in-laws after not making the tea hot enough. None of the reasons matched the intensity of their response. Worse, not all survived. I continued photographing this issue over a few more visits to Afghanistan. I listened carefully to the women’s stories and noticed a common denominator: They had all been married at very young ages, some as young as 9, and to much older men.
Photographing these young girls in agony and, in some cases, death made my heart ache. I wondered just how bad their lives had to be that they would prefer death in such a violent way. I also felt a responsibility as a journalist to look for the answers, especially if I was going to present these troubling images to the world.
A year later, I got a small grant from FiftyCrows, a foundation that supports documentary photography, to research the issue of child marriage. I went to a shelter in Herat where several girls shared their traumatic experiences with me. There, I met a young woman named Mejgon who told me how her drug-addicted father sold her into marriage when she was 11. She detailed her rape by her “husband” and how she was subsequently used and abused until she escaped, ultimately ending up in the shelter. She then said something I will never forget. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and spoke quietly, “In my whole life, I have never felt love.”
It was at that moment that I fully dedicated myself to this issue. While I have covered many profound events as a photojournalist, I had never encountered anyone who felt so alone. I hugged her and made a silent vow to Mejgon and to the many millions of girls who were in her situation.
In subsequent years I traveled to Nepal, Ethiopia, India and Yemen researching and photographing this issue for several publications, most recently for National Geographic. In almost every situation, I wanted to take the girl, throw her over my shoulder and get her out of there. But I learned it is much more complicated than that. As foreigners, we are not in the position to make that kind of immediate decision for her. We are not family members; we do not know what repercussions she would face. And how do we choose which ones to rescue from among the 60 million girls currently trapped in these marriages? Where would we put them all? How would we pay for their living expenses and educate them?
These unanswered questions only further committed me to this project. My goal became making sure that these images could be as much of an influence as possible on people's understanding of the issue, its urgency and the need to work together within these communities for change.
In fact, every image in this project was created with the help of local people living within these societies. They also were done with the permission of the girls’ guardians, parents or husbands. One mother in Afghanistan, upset about the engagement of her 8-year-old, exclaimed to me, “We are selling our daughters because we don’t have enough food to feed the rest of our children!” These are the people who need our support both financially and politically so they can be further empowered to combat child marriage in their countries and villages. It is in their best interest—child marriage not only harms the young brides, but it also impedes the development of societies as a whole.
On a positive note, I am grateful to report that Debitu, the pregnant 14-year-old from Ethiopia, has safely delivered a beautiful baby girl. On a recent visit I learned she is finally divorced from the abusive husband she fled. However, she is still struggling and is eager for an education.
I hope people will hear the voices of these young girls, see these images and talk about what they have witnessed in this film. I believe those conversations will lead to actions on their behalf. There is a lot of work to be done on this issue, but change will come. It can be daunting, but it’s not impossible.
Stephanie Sinclair's images are featured in a story on child marriage in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.
How to help: National Geographic has compiled a list of organizations that encourage families to delay marriage and give girls an opportunity to reach their full potential.