The Secret World Of Child Brides : The Picture Show National Geographic Magazine photographer Stephanie Sinclair documents the secret world of child brides in cultures around the world.
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The Secret World Of Child Brides

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The Secret World Of Child Brides

The Secret World Of Child Brides

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS: And I'm Michele Norris.

The June issue of National Geographic includes a gripping feature on child brides. Photographer Stephanie Sinclair and writer Cynthia Gorney profile young girls from Yemen to India to Afghanistan. Some are as young as 5 when they're married, and their story paints a grim picture of their lives.

One of the most striking photographs in the magazine piece is from Yemen. In it, a 14-year-old mother named Asia is squatting on the floor and bathing her newborn in a metal tub. On the floor next to them sits another child, a toddler with a small leg high in the air.

I asked Stephanie Sinclair to tell us more about that young girl, Asia's story.

Ms. STEPHANIE SINCLAIR (Photojournalist): One of the major issues with underage marriage is the fact that these girls are forced to give birth at very young ages. You know, they've reached puberty in some cases, and they can get pregnant. You know, they're still very young. Their bodies still are not quite developed.

And so this was the situation with Asia. She was 14 when I photographed her and, you know, she was very ill. She had this new baby. She didn't really have anyone there helping her much because people - she's from a very rural area, and they have a lot of people working in the fields. And so during the day -and so she was home by herself.

And, yeah, she was very overwhelmed. She was very sick. She didn't know what was going on, why she was still bleeding from childbirth. And, you know, and I think that - I mean, this is kind of graphic but, like, she didn't even know, you know, why she was still bleeding and how to stop it and, you know, what -you know, didn't have clean underwear. She didn't have, you know, anything to help her. So, I mean, it was just really - it was intense. It was intense to be there. And there were flies all around them. And you could tell she was very sad and very scared.

NORRIS: One of the striking things about these stories is that in many places -this is taking place in many parts of the world, and often these young women, as you say, don't know what's going on with their own bodies. Why isn't some of that information passed on from their mothers or their aunts or the other women in the community?

Ms. SINCLAIR: Cynthia here with one thought about that.

Ms. CYNTHIA GORNEY (Contributing Writer, National Geographic Magazine): Childbirth itself is not a subject that's really discussed because of longstanding traditions, apparently, about what you talk about and what you don't talk about.

The most affecting experience that I had with regard particularly to the childbirth issue was with a physician in Yemen who is himself deeply opposed to child marriage and talked to me about what it was like as a physician working with girls who didn't understand the facts of life at all. No one had explained to them what pregnancy is, how it's related to the sexual act. And they had worked out in the hospital, in which he worked, a protocol for the nurses, who were instructed on how to tell girls, bit by bit, as they were in labor or after they had delivered a baby, what was going on with them.

NORRIS: Over time, do you think that these young brides, if they felt that information was withheld from them, I'm wondering why they don't then go and then share that, inform their own daughters as they get older. Are there cultural forces so strong that they dare not talk about that?

Ms. SINCLAIR: Stephanie here. When I was in Yemen last year, there was a young woman who was probably in her mid 20s. And we were - I was photographing two of the young girls in the piece who are both married. They were 8 - both 8 years old, and their husbands were in their late 20s or early 30s.

And so it was in this village and, you know, this woman had, you know - was following us around. And she leaned over and kind of informed my translator that she knew of another girl who was going to be married in the next week. And she was also very young.

And then as the kind of conversation developed, it turned out it was her daughter. And her daughter was playing with the girls and was around the same age, around 8. And she basically - in, you know, almost a decade of covering this issue, this was the first time that I ever had a mother come to me and basically say, please stop this wedding.

As a foreigner, I can't impose my ideas of how to deal with this. I left it up to the people, the Yemenis that I was working with, to figure out what they would do, given that this woman had come forward like this.

One of the main physicians at the hospital in a neighboring town came out and had a meeting with the men about the physical repercussions of early marriage and how the girls would suffer greatly physically, and how the babies might suffer and/or die as the girls would - could also possibly pass away as well.

And so - and then the same thing, they had midwives come and meet with the women in the village. And the mother came up to me afterwards and said how grateful she was. Now, she had the courage and kind of the ammunition...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SINCLAIR: go and, you know, talk to her husband and refuse it. They just kind of did it through education, and it came from within the community, which I think was really the most kind of amazing and special part of this.

NORRIS: You introduced us in the story to some rebellious young girls. There's the young girl Sunil, who refused to go outside when the groom showed up and said she would call the police and, I think, told her father that she would break his head if he tried to push her through and force her to go through with this. What happens to young women who refuse to go along with the program?

Ms. GORNEY: This is Cynthia. In India, in particular, because there are extensive government campaigns against child marriage and because it's explicitly illegal, there are ways that some of these girls are able to pursue lives that, at least to us, feel a little bit more like what we might imagine a normal young woman's life should be. Sunil comes from a small village, and the reason that she knew child marriage was against the law and was not a good practice was that that village had a very active - they called them sathins in India. I'm probably pronouncing it wrong, my apologies to Hindi speakers.

They are women of the community who receive a stipend from the government for monitoring villagers' health in general, and one of their obligations is supposed to be to find out in advance when child marriages are going to happen and try to work with the families to not marry the daughters off young, and if that doesn't work, to report them to the authorities.

The particular sathin in this village had been very good. She had been very active, and she'd come into Sunil's school. Sunil was still a schoolchild in what would we call fifth grade and had talked to them about how this was bad for young girls' health and for their futures. That was why she knew, and when she - after she threatened her family and said, I know this is wrong, she ran about 200 yards away to the village home of the sathin and her family who were very much against the practice of child marriage and said, please help me with this. A neighborhood discussion ensued, and the parents were persuaded to stop the wedding of the youngest child.

NORRIS: Cynthia Gorney, Stephanie Sinclair, it's been interesting to talk to both of you. Thank you very much.

Ms. GORNEY: Thank you.

Ms. SINCLAIR: Thank you for having us.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You can see some of Stephanie Sinclair's photos of child brides. It's worth a look. You'll find them at our photo blog, the Picture Show, at

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