Q&A with Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair

Article Date

21 June 2011

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Award-winning photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair  has documented child marriages around the world – Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, Nepal and Yemen. Her latest work appears in the June issue of National Geographic and on the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting website. Sinclair talks to ICRW about her photography and why she’s optimistic that telling child brides’ stories is helping curb the practice. Sinclair responded to our questions by email.

ICRW: How and when did you stumble upon this traditional practice of child marriage, and what has kept you committed to telling this story?

SS: 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 as prepubescent children. This fact seemed to link many of these girls and this intense act of desperation. I felt a responsibility to research and document whatever it was that would make these girls set themselves on fire. As a reportage photographer, I also felt it necessary to actually witness and document these weddings to prove to the public that this is indeed happening. However, only attending and documenting these events was incredibly difficult for me personally, and as a result, I made a silent pledge to the girls that I would give everything I had to sharing their experiences and voices with the world.  

ICRW: Your images – including those in the current issue of National Geographic – depict young girls alongside their much older husbands and girls wailing in protest as they’re about to be married. These are extremely powerful. Why do you think a practice that is clearly so heartbreaking and that has many tragic consequences for girls, continues?

SS: I have always maintained that most parents do not want to hurt their children. However, the practice continues for many reasons – the main cause being gender disparity. While the boy children are celebrated, the girls are often seen as burdens, resulting in less care for their futures. Other reasons include poverty, cultural traditions and lack of education and development in those communities. It is controversial to say, but I have also found that every culture finds some justification in their religion, and that includes Hinduism, Christianity as well as Islam. 

ICRW: What steps did you take to gain access to these girls’ lives? And what insights – if any – did you learn about how their families and communities see child marriage?

SS: I always worked closely with the members of these communities. I found that many people, while they were against the practice, did not have the power to stop it, so they helped me with the project. I have tried hard to walk the line of not being too judgmental while maintaining a firm message that this practice is harmful not just to the girls (and sometimes boys) but to the societies as a whole. 

ICRW: Despite the high prevalence of child marriage in these communities, do you see reasons for optimism?

SS: Absolutely. One thing that became very clear was that the more communication these societies had with the outside world via roads, radio, etc., the more likely they were not to engage in this practice. I have also witnessed nongovernmental organizations’ campaigns finally reaching some of these rural communities, something that did not exist when I started this project eight years ago. 

ICRW: What surprised you the most during the time in which you documented this piece for National Geographic?

SS: I was most surprised at how incredibly prevalent child marriage is in Yemen. The practice there went way beyond socio-economic factors and it is quite common to see prepubescent girls getting married to much older men. The conservative culture also makes it especially difficult to create change. For instance, there are very few schools in the rural areas and many of the girls who do get this opportunity must stop their educations early because families don’t want pubescent girls to attend a class taught by a male teacher. If you can’t educate girls past an early age, then it will be hard to find adult women qualified to be teachers. It is an especially vicious cycle.