The Secret World Of Child Brides

Today on All Things Considered, Michele Norris talks with National Geographic Magazine reporter Cynthia Gorney and National Geographic photographer Stephanie Sinclair about their June piece, "Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides." I also caught up with Sinclair — a photojournalist specializing in gender and human-rights issues — to ask her a few questions about the project she has been working on for eight years.

"Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him," Tahani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for this portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their mountain home in Hajjah, Yemen. i i

"Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him," Tahani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for this portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their mountain home in Hajjah, Yemen. Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic
"Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him," Tahani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for this portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their mountain home in Hajjah, Yemen.

"Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him," Tahani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for this portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their mountain home in Hajjah, Yemen.

Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic

Coburn Dukehart: What was the inspiration for this photo series?

Stephanie Sinclair: I started this project on child marriage in 2003, after meeting several girls who had set themselves on fire in Herat, Afghanistan. I noticed that many of the girls who had done this had been married at very young ages, in many cases prepubescent. This fact seemed to link many of these girls and this intense act of desperation.

Asia, a 14-year-old mother, washes her new baby girl at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-old daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth yet has no education or access to information on how to care for herself. i i

Asia, a 14-year-old mother, washes her new baby girl at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-old daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth yet has no education or access to information on how to care for herself. Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic
Asia, a 14-year-old mother, washes her new baby girl at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-old daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth yet has no education or access to information on how to care for herself.

Asia, a 14-year-old mother, washes her new baby girl at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-old daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth yet has no education or access to information on how to care for herself.

Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic

How did your perceptions of child marriage change over time?

Long after midnight, 5-year-old Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of morning. It becomes a secret the whole village keeps, explained one farmer. i i

Long after midnight, 5-year-old Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of morning. It becomes a secret the whole village keeps, explained one farmer. Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic
Long after midnight, 5-year-old Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of morning. It becomes a secret the whole village keeps, explained one farmer.

Long after midnight, 5-year-old Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of morning. It becomes a secret the whole village keeps, explained one farmer.

Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic

I knew very little about child marriage before I met the girls in the burn ward. The longer I worked on the project, the more I realized that while it has some similarities globally — such as its negative impact on the education of girls — this issue manifested itself a bit differently in each country.

Did you have difficulty gaining access to these situations?

Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at home until puberty, when a second ceremony transfers her to her husband. i i

Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at home until puberty, when a second ceremony transfers her to her husband. Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic
Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at home until puberty, when a second ceremony transfers her to her husband.

Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at home until puberty, when a second ceremony transfers her to her husband.

Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic

Access on this story has always been incredibly difficult. I have found that most families know in their hearts that this is not good for their children. But there are many outside pressures that contribute to their decision to marry off their children, such as poverty, wanting to create family alliances, and in some cases a need to settle debts. In all cases gender disparity has played an unmistakable role.

Were you ever personally conflicted about whether or not to help some of these girls?

Although early marriage is the norm in her small Nepali village, 16-year-old Surita wails in protest as she leaves her family's home, shielded by a traditional wedding umbrella and carried in a cart to her new husband's village. i i

Although early marriage is the norm in her small Nepali village, 16-year-old Surita wails in protest as she leaves her family's home, shielded by a traditional wedding umbrella and carried in a cart to her new husband's village. Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic
Although early marriage is the norm in her small Nepali village, 16-year-old Surita wails in protest as she leaves her family's home, shielded by a traditional wedding umbrella and carried in a cart to her new husband's village.

Although early marriage is the norm in her small Nepali village, 16-year-old Surita wails in protest as she leaves her family's home, shielded by a traditional wedding umbrella and carried in a cart to her new husband's village.

Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic

Absolutely — in almost every situation I was in, I wanted to take the girl, put her on my shoulder and get her out of there. But it is much more complicated than that. As foreigners, we are not in a position to make that kind of decision for her. We are not their family members and do not know what repercussions they could face by our individual interference.

But this helplessness actually further compelled me to continue working on this project, making sure that I could be as much of an influence as possible on people's understanding of the issue, its urgency and the need to work together for change. And in fact, every image in this project was done with the help of the locals living within these societies. They wanted this issue to get support so they could be further empowered to combat child marriage. This practice not only harms the young brides but also impedes the development of their communities and societies as a whole.

I strongly believe there is not just a need for awareness-raising and prevention work, but we must find ways to help these girls who are already in these marriages — be it through giving financial incentives to their families to let them stay in school, or vocational training so they can have more say in their lives and households. Quality medical treatment is also needed for girls who are giving birth at these young ages. These girls need long-term solutions. There is no quick fix.

The June 2011 cover of National Geographic Magazine i i
Courtesy of National Geographic
The June 2011 cover of National Geographic Magazine
Courtesy of National Geographic

I am a firm believer in Desmond Tutu's words, "I am because we are."

To see more photos from the series visit nationalgeographic.com

To learn more about child brides, visit this list of aid organizations, compiled by National Geographic

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