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The Insidious Tradition Of Taking Child Brides


For millions of girls around the world, marriage is not an issue of individual choice or a matter of the heart. It's a business agreement between families arranged by elder males. Some girls are forced to marry as young as five. It's forbidden by international agreements, outlawed in many countries, yet the tradition continues. Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair spent the past eight years investigating the secret world of child marriage all over the world, from India to Yemen, Afghanistan to Nepal and Ethiopia.

Her images were featured in the June issue of National Geographic. And she joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And Cynthia Gorney wrote an article that accompanied your photographs in the magazine. And she describes a desperation, wanting to rescue one girl, in particular, being married in Rajasthan, in India, at the age of five.

SINCLAIR: Yeah, that's was Rajani. She's a beautiful young girl who was married with her two older sisters during the same ceremony. And, you know, yeah, that is the overwhelming feeling you have when you're in these situations. But at the same time, you realize that these are cultural issues that are - that happen and have developed because of a necessity. So a lot of it stems from poverty. It stems from wanting to keep families close to each other. And so they have an alliance. And so there are reasons that this - that these traditions started. However, the world has changed so much, and so, you know, that - it's mostly happening in rural areas where development hasn't quite gotten as far along as it has in the cities.

CONAN: You called it a necessity. Why would you describe it that way?

SINCLAIR: Well, I mean, for instance, I mean, these traditions, harmful traditional practices have been around for, you know, thousands of years, so people lived much shorter lives at that time. So, you know, their idea was that you had to have as many children as possible. So as a young girl was, you know, had her first menstruation, you know, they wanted them to have children because they needed them. They needed them to work in the fields and just, you know, because not every child lived at that time, as well - not that they do know, but, you know, it was much more prevalent in the past to have, you know, maternal mortality or infant mortality. And so they had to - this was one of the tactics they used.

CONAN: I was interested in just the mechanics. The five-year-old was being married to a 10-year-old boy.

SINCLAIR: Yeah. And this was, I mean, primarily, this was done to - so the family could save money. So they can't afford to have three weddings, and so the two older girls were 13 and 15, I believe. And so Rajani was only five, but the three sisters who are marrying three brothers. And so in that case, you know, they get to have one wedding, and that the grandfather, in Rajani's case, was trying to ensure that his youngest granddaughter would have a safe place to live and be protected by her sisters. Now, I don't believe that - I don't think any of the grooms knew any of the brides, so this was an arranged marriage for both the boys and the girls.

CONAN: And they were - as you and Cynthia Gorney were waiting their arrival, people are expecting them to arrive in - I think the expression was in high spirits and drunk.

SINCLAIR: Yes, and that happened. It was actually, I mean, my guess that it is a harmful traditional practice, and there are some really - the festivities were amazing to see. And it was - the outfits were beautiful, but at the same time there is a harmful aspect to this, where, you know, there is underage marriage happening. And they did arrive intoxicated in the evening, but a lot of that was actually because it's held in the middle of the night because it's illegal in India and they had this wedding in secret.

CONAN: And, of course, the five-year-old's name and prospects were not published on the wedding invitation.

SINCLAIR: No. And we were - we respected the family's wishes to kind of - we're allowed to use her first name, but we can't say what village she's in and things like that. You know, but that's a - it was, you know, even after working on this issue for so long, I had never seen a wedding like this where the girl - the youngest bride was, you know, really just a child. I mean, there are children in their early teens as well, but there's, you know, when they're, you know, this was a small child. And they woke her up at 4 o'clock in the morning because that's when her final - when her actual ceremony happened was the latest in the evening. And they woke her up at four in the morning, and they just kind of put her gently over her uncle's shoulder and carried her to the wedding. And both she or her young husband, neither of them knew, really, what was going on.

CONAN: Interesting, too, that the women in the village, her relatives, her older relatives, completely in favor of this. I went through this. You will too.

SINCLAIR: Yeah. I mean, I think because this is happening in the really rural areas, I think that they don't know another option. You know, this is, you know, we were - I was just listening to your previous discussion. I mean, it's similar, you know, this is in the rural areas, so there's not as much education. There is not as much development. And so I think with education, that's really the main thing that stops this issue from, you know, increasing. And basically, the girls need to be educated. The families need to be educated. The community needs to be educated on the downsides of this, which are, you know, increased physical problems, you know, all kinds of issues that can happen to the girl, from fistula to prolapsed uterus to, you know, mental issues that can result - which we saw in Afghanistan.

CONAN: The - you mentioned the - one of the purposes of this was to have girls start having babies as soon as they are physically able to. Are girls as young as five expected to be sexually active?

SINCLAIR: No. I think that they realize that that isn't going to happen in this - with a five-year-old. However, I did photograph - and it was part of the article - I photographed two young brides who were eight years old, and they were married to husbands, I think, late 20s, early 30s, and they were both - no, one of them was sexually active. The other one was not.

CONAN: We were talking about this one marriage in this one village in India. There are other places that you've also documented, where there is tradition of abduction and rape prior to marriage.

SINCLAIR: Yeah. This happens - it happens in several places. Often, again, it's a poverty issue. It's, you know, the families can't afford necessary to pay the dowries involved. And so, you know, like, for instance, it happens in Ethiopia in that way and, you know, the girl might be going to school, which is so ironic because this is the way out of this tradition, but the girl might be going to school and get abducted. And then once she's raped and impregnated, then she's lost so much of her honor that it's very hard - and the family's honor that it's very - the family just kind of, like, OK, you can have her, you know? And it's also a gender disparity issue in that, you know, that there is - that somehow, you know, it's - she's not fighting back. I mean, she has - some of these girls actually have fought back, but the family is not fighting back, culturally, when this happens in certain communities. They just kind of relinquish the girl to her abductor, and that's just because they're just not valued quite the same as men.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephanie Sinclair, a contributing photographer with National Geographic, about "Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And there are moments, in fact, when situations like that, which do make headlines around the world. There was one young woman, in particular, I think it was in Yemen.

SINCLAIR: Yes, Nujood Ali. She is quite a character. I love her to death. She's a really, really strong willed young girl who was married when she was really young, I believe eight years old. And she decided that she was going to - she didn't want to do this anymore. And he - they were sexually active. You know, he did, you know, in - rape her in her words. And she actually has a book out now, with the help of a friend of mine, who did it - who helped her write it. But basically, she went to her, you know, one of her - she had two mothers, because you're allowed to have multiple wives there, so not her biological mother, but the other mother. She went to her and told her what was happening. And she encouraged her to go to the court house, and that's where she met the lawyer, Shada Nasser, who then decided to take her case. And they - and she ended up getting a divorce. And, you know, because I think a lot of times when these - actually, I know that when a lot of times these marriages happen, the families always say that they're not going to touch the girls until they're older. I've heard that in almost every situation I've been in. But that turns out to not be the case, more often than not.

CONAN: What is the fate of those girls who do not marry?

SINCLAIR: Well, that's the other problem, you know? On a lot of these places, there's not quite enough to do with them. You know, there's few schools, so unlike - for instance, in Yemen, this was a really difficult situation, because the girls, you know, they stay in school as long - until they reach puberty. But the problem is is that there's not a bathroom, a private bathroom for boys and girls, so there's no where for her to really deal with her menstruation in a private space. There is, you know, they don't want - there's no female teachers because the girls aren't educated. So - and the families feel uncomfortable having that a male teacher with a girl who's reached puberty, so it kind of is a vicious circle in that situation, because that there's, you know, not enough girls making it, you know, past primary school, then they can't become teachers.

CONAN: There's a - according again from Cynthia Gorney's article that accompanied some of your photographs, a Hindi term paraya dhan, which refers to daughters still living with their own parents as meaning, someone else's wealth. Stephanie Sinclair, thank you very much for being with us today.

SINCLAIR: Thank you for having me and for taking on this issue.

CONAN: Stephanie Sinclair, contributing photographer with National Geographic. Her images were featured in the June issue of National Geographic magazine: Too Young To Wed, The Secret World of Child Brides. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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