By Lauren Shin.
This past week, I had the amazing opportunity to step foot in the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. Having been mesmerized by National Geographic magazines and their breathtaking photographs for years, I couldn’t help but jump up and down as I entered the building. I wandered into the gift shop where I found myself buying a 30 dollar book within minutes. I took home Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment, a book composed of the fantastic work and thoughts of female photojournalists-aka, my heroes.
While this book showcases the fantastic and inspirational work of several female photographers, I stopped when I got to Stephanie Sinclair, whose famous photograph occupies the cover of the beautiful book. She not only uses photography to cover human rights stories, but also proves the unique power women have in spreading awareness about global issues. Her incredible work as a photojournalist has illuminated the issue of child marriage in third world countries, an issue I otherwise would not have looked into without seeing her work.
Sinclair was first exposed to child marriage when she went to Afghanistan in 2003 to work on self-immolation, when many of the burned and young victims had significantly older husbands. Child marriage is also prevalent in Nepal, Ethiopia, India, and Yemen***.
In 2012, Sinclair implemented her series, Too Young to Wed , an eight year long project to spread awareness of the 67 million girls of over 50 countries who are forced into marriage****.
Child marriage is rampant among several poverty stricken countries, for it becomes a solution for several families who see daughters as burdens that must be relieved. Families will have no choice but to marry off their daughters if they cannot afford to feed the rest of their children or to clear out debts**. Sinclair met an Afghan police women who remarked that “girls are seen as family burdens, while their male counterparts are seen as kings” – shortly after, she was murdered by the Taliban**.
Sinclair’s most famous photograph taken in Yemen sparked a significant amount of public awareness on the issue. The girl in the pink, Tehani, was six years old when she married her husband of 27 years old*****. The day of her marriage, her mother took her from her room and started dressing her up, ignoring all of Tehani’s questions of what she was doing and where they were going. Tehani recalled that everyone just told her to “come, come”, until she found herself at her own wedding ceremony**. The other girl, Ghada, married her husband of 33 when she was also just six years old*****.
Figure 1: Stephanie Sinclair went to Yemen and photographed these two little girls and their husbands.
It is common that girls, like Ghada and Tahani, are married before they have even reached puberty. Families often feel pressured to marry their daughters off young, as many believe menstruation is induced by intercourse*. Marriages are commonly set up with men who are middle aged widowers, or even claim their victims by rape. They can also be arranged through business transactions, debt clearances in trade for a bride, or a solution to resolve a family feud*. Thus, girls in third world countries are seen more as property to be traded or compromised rather than as human beings.
While child marriages play an important part in certain cultures, its consequences are much too negative to ignore. Taken out of school, millions of girls are forced into sexual relations without any education or awareness of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases*.
A study done by the organization Girls Not Brides indicated that girls under 15 were five times more likely to die giving birth***. Girls who give birth at a young age are also much more vulnerable to obstetric fistula, a medical condition in which a hole develops in the child’s birth canal due to poor medical care*. It is also common for girls to become victims of rape and abuse. Despite the clear risks of young marriage, many of the children’s protests are ignored.
Figure 2: In Nepal, 16 year old Surita cries in protest as she is carried into the cart that would take her to her husband’s village. *********
The question is why child marriage still prevails in certain countries like Yemen, which is only one of two countries without legislation on minimum age of marriage *******. “What families don’t realize is that by curtailing girl’s education, they are only perpetuating the cycle of poverty”, explains Sinclair**. As long as girls are kept out of school, families will continue to suffer from poverty, and girls will continue to be threatened by the dominance of men in their lives. Anju Malhorta, a researcher in the International Center for Research on Women, also notes that the men of the house are also to blame for child marriage. Husbands of these families believe that if they bring young girls into a family, they have control to raise the child as a wife, to mold her exactly into what they want her to be*.
To completely eradicate child marriage is difficult because of its entrenchment within a country’s culture and religion******. But, a right to choose is a necessary right every girl should have: “child marriage happens because adults believe they have the right to impose marriage upon a child. This denies children, particularly girls, their dignity and opportunities to make choices that are central to their lives, such as when whom to marry or when to have children. Choices define us and allow us to realize out potential. Child marriage robs girls of this chance” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Graca Machel)*.
In 2009, a child’s rights act proposed a minimum age of 18 to marry; however, the parliamentary Sharia committee vetoed the act, claiming that such an attempt was “un-islamic” ***. However, this past May, the Yemeni government began making progressive steps towards reforming child marriage through another Child Rights Act. This new act would not only ban marriage until girls are 18 years old, but also human rights violations such as female genital mutilation********.
Rates of child marriage have been going down, but at a slow rate. The United Nations Populations Fund estimates that over 142 million brides in the next decade*. However, Malhorta says that the prime solution in speeding up the end to child marriage is education**. Like for many women’s issues, education can save millions of girls from becoming the victims of abusive households and threatening medical conditions. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says: “Child marriage is a violation of human rights…innocent young girls worldwide will be separated from their friends and family, deprived of an education and put in harm’s way because of child marriage…all members of society will benefit when we let girls be girls, not brides”*.
Of course, hope for improvement would not have been possible without Sinclair’s project, Too Young to Wed, which went viral on social media sights and catalyzed the efforts to solve the issue. Sinclair’s documentary made it to 100 online print media outlets, including CNN, New York Times, and National Geographic*. Her powerful photographs have moved thousands of people, many of whom who have joined the fight to end child marriage. As a result of her work, the UN Commission on the Status of Women met to call an end to child marriage in 2013. That same year, the United Nations also added ending child marriage as part of the goals of the post 2015 development agenda*.
Figure 3: Nujood Ali is known for her courageous act in winning a court case against her abusive husband-only when she was 10 years old. After she won the legal battle, she got a divorce and is now happily living at home with her family and attending school. Her bravery has marked heran international heroine for women’s rights. *********
Sinclair’s work demonstrates the enormous power women have on global issues, especially for women. In an industry originally dominated by men, Sinclair and other committed female photojournalists are proving the wide access women have on educating the rest of the world in a new and inspiring perspective. Women photographers and writers have inspired thousands of people to push for change, by taking what they have experienced in traveling the world into the eyes of other individuals. Due to the efforts of women like Sinclair, women are having their voices heard.
Lauren Shin is a rising senior at Weston High School, Massachusetts. After participating in AID’s Global Scholar program last year, she wanted to get involved with the organization once again. She is currently doing research on women’s issues from all around the world, and hopes to show how women are key stones in solving contemporary world affairs. Lauren also loves photography and design, believing that art is a great way to spread awareness about a particular issue. Furthermore, she participates on the Varsity Crew team and Asian Student Union, and has been a girl scout for over ten years.
Please take a look at Stephanie Sinclair’s project Too Young to Wed.
National Geographic’s Women of Vision Exhibition: http://wovexhibition.org/
*Sinclair, Stephanie. “Too Young To Wed.” Too Young Too Wed. Web. 9 Aug. 2014. <tooyoungtowed.org>
** Stephanie Sinclair “Too Young To Wed” Documentary 2011 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYleXcpbzKY>
***”Stephanie Sinclair.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 July 2014. Web. 08 Aug. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephanie_Sinclair>
****”Child Marriage Facts and Figures.” RSS. Web. 9 Aug. 2014. http://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figure
*****Phillips, Sarah. “Stephanie Sinclair’s Best Photograph: Child Brides in Yemen.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 23 May 2013. Web. 9 Aug. 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/may/22/stephanie-sinclair-best-photograph-child-brides
******”The Reason For Yemen’s Child-Bride Problem Isn’t What You’d Expect.” Mic. Web. 9 Aug. 2014. http://mic.com/articles/64007/the-reason-for-yemen-s-child-bride-problem-isn-t-what-you-d-expect
******* Abbad, Nawal, and The Opinions Expressed in This Commentary Are Solely Those of Nawal Ba Abbad. “Opinion: Time to Stop Child Marriage in Yemen and Give Girls Back Their Childhood.” CNN. Cable News Network, 1 Jan. 1970. Web. 9 Aug. 2014. < http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/17/opinion/opinion-yemen-child-marriage>
********”Yemen to Vote on Child Rights Act – The Borgen Project.” The Borgen Project RSS2. Web. 9 Aug. 2014.< http://borgenproject.org/yemen-vote-child-rights-act/>
*********”Child Brides – Photo Gallery – Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine.” Child Brides – Photo Gallery – Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine. Web. 9 Aug. 2014. <http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/child-brides/sinclair-photography#/02-child-bride-husband-yemen-714.jpg>