Today on All Things Considered, Michele Norris talks with National Geographic Magazine reporter Cynthia Gorney and 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.
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.
How did your perceptions of child marriage change over time?
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?
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?
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 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 household. 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.
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