Read, Debate: Engage.

Too Young To Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides

June 08, 2013
tags:#Afghanistan, #child brides, #UNFPA, #women's rights
by:Jack Bicker
In 2011, American photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair exhibited a series of images telling of the pain, anxiety and suffering of child brides from across the world. Two years on, and the statistics suggest little has changed in the fight against stolen childhood.

"During sex I was crying and begging him to stop, but he didn't listen. He put his hand over my mouth, I couldn't breathe and I was crying, but he used me anyway, and I just cried. My age is 8."

It is with this chilling story that photographer Stephanie Sinclair opens the short film documenting the plight of child brides across the globe. The childhood of the eight year-old in Sinclair's film had been discarded by a father who'd transacted her out of her family and into the hands of an adult male who was content to force himself sexually onto the body and mind of a child.

Two years on from Sinclair's high profile National Geographic project, and the United Nations is still predicting that across the world, 14 million girls under eighteen will be married in each and every year over the next decade.

Sinclair was compelled to begin the project while visiting a hospital in Herat Province in Afghanistan in 2003. On reaching the hospital's burns ward she was confronted with the sight of several young girls being treated after having set themselves on fire.

One of the girls was called Marsia, a fifteen year-old who had married at the age of nine. The dreadful treatment that she had suffered at the hands of her husband had conditioned her into being so constantly terrified, that when she accidentally broke his TV set, she had resorted to suicide rather than having to face his reaction.

One of many, Marsia's story testifies to the physical and psychological abuse that often accompanies child marriages in cultures where women are reduced to little more than currency, and the space and time usually set aside for childhood development is instead stolen by a regime of domestic chores, beatings and sexual abuse.  

Anju Malhotra, of the International Centre for Research on Women, told Sinclair that "the husband's family and the husband think that when they bring a girl into the family when she is so young, they can mould her to be exactly what they want her to be. There is this sense that somehow the man is raising this child as his wife". Little regard is given to the future development of the girls, and almost all child brides leave education as soon as they get married. Instead, their purpose is to obey a process of formation, however brutal, that crushes any natural claims to autonomy, and erases any constructions of self  beyond that prescribed by the role of a subordinate, mindful servant. 

Bibi Aisha, whose story was brought to international attention in 2009, was one girl who tried to push back against her situation. Married to a Taliban fighter at the age of 13, her husband thought so lowly of her that he expected her to sleep in a stable with his animals. When she left, exasperated, to visit her mother without her husband's permission, he caught up with her, cut off both her ears and nose, and left her for dead.

However, its not only violence or psychological abuse that endangers the lives of these young girls. Human Rights Watch suggests that in Yemen, 74% of women who die in childbirth were married before the age of 20, and a girl who becomes pregnant under the age of 15 is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a women in her twenties; statistics that further point towards the perils for young girls who have pregnancy forced upon them at a time when their bodies are not yet sufficiently developed to carry a child.

Writing on the International Day of the Girl Child 2012, the executive directors of the UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women wrote; "If we can end child marriage, we can change the lives of girls everywhere and help them to enjoy their childhoods; enrol them in school; protect them from complicated pregnancies and births. We can keep girls safe. And as we do all of this, we help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty... We must galvanise political commitment and dedicate resources for girls to realise their rights and fulfil their potential. Together we can end child marriage".

Since Sinclair's project, the United Nation's Population Fund has launched a campaign called End Child Marriage: Their Rights, Their Lives. More information can be found by accessing their website here...

Image: © Time Magazine, licensed under wiki commons. 

Article written by:
jack bicker
Jack Bicker
Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 01.08.29