Ahead of her talk next week at the Palo Alto Photo Forum, Stephanie Sinclair discusses how her project on childhood marriage expanded into an international women’s empowerment organization.
Most journalists take comfort in the fact that their work can make a difference in the world. The long-held conception is that the publishing of an important story leads to awareness and then possibly changes in laws and policies. Yet within the mania of the modern news cycle, well-reported stories can often come and go with very little impact.
Stephanie Sinclair, however, appears to be evolving the paradigm of how journalists can effect change in the modern era. She already had a Pulitzer Prize under her belt when she began covering the war in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. It was there that she learned of (and soon shifted her focus to) the issue of child marriage, in which young girls—often less than 10-years-old—were forced into unions as a result of poverty, century-old traditions and other factors.
Sinclair’s coverage of the topic spanned years and was indeed published around the world. Yet rather than pass it off and hope for the best, Sinclair built on the relationships she had already developed to promote more direct hands-on change. Out of her photo project she launched Too Young to Wed, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower girls and end child marriage around the world.
We caught up with Sinclair over the phone to get some insight into her work ahead of her appearance at the Palo Alto Photo Forum later this month.
To start, can you tell me a bit about how you first encountered the topic of child marriage and your initial motivation to pursue it as a photo project?
I started my career as a news photographer, and I came across this issue working in Afghanistan, in 2003. I was covering many of the social issues surrounding the conflict and it was there that I had discovered girls who were married very young. And I typically met them after suicide attempts, so it was a very intense introduction to the topic of child marriage. Many of them had been married very young — some of them between the ages of 9 and 11, some were 15, some were in their 20s — but they were all showing serious and significant responses to what happened to them.
When I began doing research about the issue, what I found was that there were very few photographs about child marriage anywhere online. So I felt that it was a very important and underreported story that I wanted to share with the world. And the more I looked into it the more I realized what a significant issue it was.
Can you explain the logistical challenges of focusing on a story like this, especially as a foreign woman trying to get access into these situations?
Access is always difficult on this topic, but inevitably, it’s allowed once the people I’ve met are educated about the issue and are made aware that this project series is not with the intention of humiliating families, but to show the needs for education and that the areas have high rates of poverty. So once they realize that this isn’t a personal attack, but that it’s more about understanding that this is happening globally, this has happened for centuries and that to continue to allow it is making their communities remain in the cycle of poverty— then they let it go and say, “Please, let people know that we are here.”
They’re more open to change than you would think .
Was there a particular girl or child marriage situation that really stuck with you during your work on this project?
There are so many. There is a girl named Tehani who I met in Yemen in 2010, and she was 8 years old and she was married to a man in his 30s. She was already married for two years [when I met her], and when she spoke about what happened to her it was with the seriousness and matter-of-factness of someone my age, of a much older adult. When there is significant trauma [in children] you see something called “mixed maturity.” So in one case Tehani would be laughing with her friends and in other she’d be acting with the seriousness of a woman in her 40s or 50s. And that’s because she has had to assume an adult role for so long. She had told me that her father had died and once that happened she didn’t have the protection of her family so she ended up being married off very young. She told me she didn’t even understand how babies were made. She didn’t even understand what was happening to her as they consummated the marriage and she was having all of these adult experiences. And hearing that just really broke my heart.
We have these workshops that are for survivors of child marriage: they are girl empowerment and leadership workshops that are run through the medium of photography. So we teach them photography through stories of strong women and these issues. They are learning about what women are facing worldwide so that they feel more comfortable about sharing their own experiences. And we call these the Tehani workshops.
I’m curious what reactions you get to this project and the imagery in the U.S.? On one hand I’d think child marriage would be heavily frowned upon here, and yet I read up on our laws and they’re shockingly scant.
I’ve worked on the issue here in the U.S. particularly with the fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Utah. I covered that because they were in the news on this topic back in 2008. It is certainly an issue in many states, because there is no federal law, and it’s dealt with at the state level. So there is a lot of inconsistencies per state. I will say that the number of cases aren’t as high here, which is why it is not an area where I have advocated the most. But at the same time there are significant repercussions here. Even if a 16-year-old gets married willingly and it doesn’t work out for whatever reason and they want to get a divorce—you can’t sign a contract, you can’t get a place to live, you can’t go to a domestic violence shelter if you are under 18. There are a lot of limitations when those laws are not in place even if it doesn’t happen as often, and it shouldn’t happen at all. A girl should not be put in that situation at all in a country that is as developed as we are.
More than just the photos themselves, you’ve evolved this project into a non-profit to curb the practice of child marriage. Can you tell me about the scope and challenges of the Too Young To Wed organization?
After working on this project for many years and publishing it in media publications worldwide, I felt a bit limited by relying on others to just publish it and hope that something happens. And I think that publishing is certainly one part of the solution by getting the work out there, but on the other hand I wanted to do more for the communities where this is happening.
A lot of times these issues are happening in places where there just aren’t a lot of NGOs working there yet, so very rural, less developed areas. And so to not waste the relationships that we built in these communities to do these stories, we decided to be the bridge until more development and social support comes into those areas.
We provide scholarships for kids that otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to school. So for instance, we are partnered with an organization in Yemen that has about 525 girls who otherwise may not go to school; they’re [susceptible] to being taken out of school and married because the conflict has been raging and famine has been an issue. And so to keep them coming to school, this organization Solidarios Sin Fronteras provides breakfast everyday for these girls. So we’ve provided about 25,000 breakfasts as part of this program to keep them in school. And that’s been super exciting.
In addition to that, we do the workshops and we also do a lot of advocacy. So as these girls are educated and they have more confidence and they’re starting their healing process, they are able to advocate for other girls who are in their situation directly instead of going through outside people like myself.
So we have supported two girls to come here [to America]. They are Boko Harem survivors. And we brought them to the States and they ended up meeting with 32 members of Congress, last March.
So, you’ve work on this project for awhile now—15 years—and I have to ask, are you optimistic? Is this issue moving in a better direction?
Absolutely. Change is underway. This is something that has been happening for centuries, so it is going to take time to have the world — especially in the most rural areas — see girls for their whole selves and not just their bodies, and to not have that disconnect where they are de-humanized enough to have them be traded for cows, goats and things like that. Ultimately the girls themselves are the ones that have the biggest voice. A lot of the girls either run away from the marriage or escape being married by standing up for themselves and just saying no. That’s why the empowerment workshops and programs we’re doing are important, because the more we can empower them the more that they will do that for their sisters and other girls in their community, and then once you stop that in one girl, she’s not gonna let that happen to her children either. So you end it in a generation.
For me, I kind of see it as — these families were very brave for doing this, but they do it cause they are hopeful of change. So if they’re open to it, I’m trying to keep that door from being closed.
(This interview was edited for length and clarity)
The Palo Alto Photo Forum will host Stephanie Sinclair for a presentation of her Too Young to Wed imagery, as well as a discussion and Q&A with moderator Lori Barra at the Mitchell Park Community Center on March 15, at 7:30 pm.
See more of Stephanie Sinclair’s work on Instagram at @StephSinclairPics and on her website — StephanieSinclair.com
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