Stephanie: Child marriage occurs in more than 50 developing countries around the world. And almost always results in the girl's removal from school. What families don't realize is that by curtailing girl's education, they're only perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Still, families do this for a number of reasons. Perhaps they can't afford to feed the rest of their children. It can create family alliances and it often settles debts. Early marriage often results in abusive and even deadly consequences.
I first ran into this issue in Afghanistan in 2003. I was doing a story on the burn ward in Herat, Afghanistan. There several girls had set themselves on fire and I didn't understand why they would do that. As a Westerner, as someone who just hadn't had anything personal in my life that was so bad that I would want to do that, and then I met this young girl, Marzia. She was 15 years old and turned out, she had been married at the age of nine. She had set herself on fire because she broke her husband's television set and obviously was so fearful of reaction by him or the family that she decided to set herself on fire, and really that's a suicide attempt.
While I was in the burn ward, I met several girls who... They all gave different reasons for why they would do this. Like someone didn't make the tea hot enough. It wasn't reasons that I could comprehend. The more I researched about their lives, I learned that more than half of those girls were married underage. Now, I don't believe that's the only reason why those girls did that but at the same time, it was a common denominator I couldn't deny. I wanted to look at the issues that would lead to such a horrific act. I felt it was a bit irresponsible actually as a photojournalist, the journalist part being important, to just show this end result.
I started looking at the issue of underage marriage, something I had never encountered before like this. I had the great fortune to meet Malalai Kakar and she was a police officer in Kandahar. Just a powerhouse, really amazing woman. She had been working with... in the police department for more than 20 years, even under the Taliban, only working on women's issues. I told her what I was working on and she said, “Stephanie, this is impossible. You're never going to photograph a wedding here in Afghanistan.” She's like, “I don't even know if I can even get you anything like this.” She's like, “It happens all the time but I don't know if I can get you this,” and I said, “okay.” Then I went back to the hotel and she called me that afternoon. She's like, “Stephanie, get over here.” She had this young girl Jamila, which actually means beautiful in Arabic, but this young girl Jamila, she was 15 years old. She had been stabbed by her husband. This is her husband there. She already had 2 kids and she had just been trying to visit her mother without his permission. I asked Malalai, I said, “What's going to happen to this man?” And she said, “Nothing.” She kind of scoffed and then that's when she said, “Men are kings here.” Unfortunately she was the one who was later murdered by the Taliban.
Having worked in the Middle East for a long time, I really wanted to make sure this wasn't something that was just against one religious practice. It's not meant to be against any religion, religious practice, but I didn't want to single out one, and so, I went looking in different countries and cultures as well. This series of photographs is from Nepal. And this is a village called the Kagati Village and it's just only 30 minutes outside of Kathmandu. This village is known for practicing this. There is a day... It's not Akha Teej, which they do in India, but it's a different auspicious day where a lot of girls are married on the same day. I was able to see several of these young marriages. The girls are usually married between 13 and 16. It was very difficult to get access to. In a lot of cases I showed them some of the other pictures that I had done before and I wanted them to know that I wasn't ... You know, even though...I mean, I was focusing, specifically in the beginning of the project, on kind of the harmful repercussions because I wanted that message to get out, but at the same time I wanted to show the cultures of the weddings and the beauty in these cultures, and that was one of the reasons why I actually wanted to show the weddings themselves because you see all these beautiful colors. There are some really beautiful traditions. One thing that I learned was that some of the people in these weddings that were participating, were actually against the practice but they were walking a fine line between trying to like speak out but also they were part of the culture. They wanted to help me out and help be their voice.
I also went to Ethiopia where they have a strong Christian population. In January there's a lot of weddings up in the Amhara District, which is where it's most predominant in Ethiopia. I went to several weddings there and this one was of a young girl. I think she was 14, Layulim. Here they actually drape the sheet over her head to take her to her husband's house. That's when they were taking her. Actually she was one of the girls who didn't mind that she was getting married. She thought she was gonna have a better life. She wasn't against her marriage but they were taking her to the house and I asked why is she covered up like that? She said, “Well, we just wanna make sure that if she escapes, she can't find her way home, so she'll have to come back.” This is the first time that I actually was involved in the stopping of a wedding. In this situation, the mother came over and she said to my translator that this girl was gonna get married that week. She asked us if we could stop it and I said, “I really don't know.” That's not my job to do that, it's not my position as a foreigner. Not even as a journalist but as a foreigner and I said, “But, if you want to discuss it with the sheikh... And we have our government minder as well. If you want to discuss it and tell them what you learned, then you can.” That's what she did. They made a decision. Even the government minder made a decision to go talk to the head of the hospital, not so far away, and they came back and they talked to the village about the physical consequences of early marriage and they ended up stopping this particular wedding.
This is a young girl who was early 20's and already had all those children. This is a young girl named Asia and she was 14 and already had 2 children. She was still bleeding from her pregnancy. She didn't know what was going on with her body and that was one of the scariest situations is them not knowing what's going on with their bodies and why things are happening to them. Yemen is one of the places where it's most predominant. It's not as reported on because it's harder to get statistics and whatnot from. But an amazing situation - I went to one village in Hajjah and I said, “Can you show me where there are some young girls who are married underage?” All of a sudden all these girls come in and I was like, “Wow, I was expecting like two.” All these girls were married. A couple of them had children. Most of them were about 15, 16. Most of them were not in school or had never been in school and I asked them why hadn't they gone, and they said, “Because there's no female teachers.” When you have a culture like this, where if you don't have girls, who are educated enough to become teachers, then how do you put female teachers in these rural areas. Because this isn't Sanaa. This isn't even Hodeidah. This is like the rural village areas. And so, it's hard to change a culture, cultural practices where... There's nothing for them to do but get married if they're not educated to do anything else. It was kind of a catch-22 and I felt that that was an important part of this story. Thank you.
Cynthia: I started in India in my field work because it is the case of course that this happens a great deal in India as well as other countries, and India being one of the most populous countries on the planet. There's a whole area in Northern India, the state of Rajasthan, where this practice is more widespread than anywhere else concentrated in India, although it does take place all over India. And in particular, there is a season in India called Akha Teej, which it's not specifically marriages that are regarded as auspicious, as we came to learn during Akha Teej. All new enterprises including business enterprises are thought to have a good start, if they take place during this set of religious and astrological holidays in Akha Teej. So I first went... Stephanie and I didn't connected until the 2nd trip. I first went and spent a lot of time just in the field, as Stephanie says, just talking to people and coming to understand how extraordinary, how extraordinarily complicated this is.
Here's something that we all sort of know in the abstract, but it takes a very different reality when you're in India. Many, many of the marriages in India are arranged marriages. It remains to this day the most common way for marriage to occur in India, for young men and young women. So the notion that there is some independent right for a woman or a girl to select who she's gonna marry, is regarded in many of the most enlightened families in India as just nonsensical because that's not the way you do it. A marriage, Indians would say to me of all educational levels, is a joining of two families. It's not two, excuse me, two foolish young people in love with each other deciding to get married. There's so very much more at stake. So that goes out the door right away. Then you think about a village. A very poor village, as this one was, where the only option for a girl growing up is to work on a field in tremendous heat or tremendous monsoon, and suffer possibly the consequences of having some young man or boy have sex with her before she's married, which in that culture renders her basically an outcast for the rest of her life. So those are two things right there that are very different from anything that a typical American or Western young woman might have to contemplate in her future.
This village is the one that we went to after weeks and weeks and weeks of hanging around on both of our parts. Stephanie is the most amazing hanger-arounder waiting for things to happen I've ever encountered and she does it in the most brutal circumstances you can imagine. We had been told that there were two adolescent girls, sisters who were going to be married, and that it was going to take place at night, and that if we were very careful, and did all sorts of elegant negotiations, and brought some kind of a token of respect to the village, we could watch. We came, we were prepared for the wedding of a 12-year old and a 13-year old or something like that we've been told.
This is one of the teenage girls preparing, putting on her makeup. This is a big event both for the girls and for everyone in the village. The entire village is consumed by the festivities that are coming to pass. This little girl was part of the family that we met and her face will haunt me for the rest of my days. That is very much what she looked like. We first saw her in the afternoon in her little pink dress as she was wandering around. We said, “Who is that?” They said, “Oh, she's the cousin of the two sisters.” People were kind of circumspect about it. Then they started putting makeup on this little girl. I remember this room. It was a tiny little room in the village. It was enormously hot. Everybody was crammed in there. Of course, there were only women as you might imagine, crammed into this thing, and Stephanie and I just sat watching and we all began to realize and our translator who was also a young woman, began to realize what we thought was likely to happen. This horrible feeling grew in all of us. Stephanie had been living with this reality for many years longer than any of us but I think, if I'm not mistaken Stephanie, that this was the first time you had actually seen a child this young being prepared for what looked like her wedding. The women gathered around. There were many, many prenuptial traditions. Some of which were quite beautiful in the tremendous heat. I remember them walking with crockery on their head across a long field. At one point, the cloth that you see behind... They had multiple kinds of beautiful sari cloth strung out all over the village to make canopies, to make celebratory places because people were gonna come from far and wide. The women are standing behind. There's the three girls and they're all bathing. They're in the dirt and now they were washing the little girl and now we understood for sure that she was gonna be part of the wedding. The proceedings went on for hours. That's typical for an Indian wedding. It's especially typical for weddings in this part of Northern India, where when they are breaking the law, as it's important to remember they were doing. This is not a legal practice in India. It has not been for over a century and that's the case in most, not all, but most of the countries in which child marriage takes place. If you go to the Indian authorities at the state, at the provincial...local level, the state level and the national level, they will decry this practice just as vigorously as anyone here in the United States would, but they will also say it's very difficult to climb into these cultures and find out what's going on, and furthermore, when you do get the word of what's going on, if you try to stop it... Which way they will sometimes do. They will make a great show, they will throw someone in jail. You'll have probably disgraced that family for a generation to come. You have probably not stopped the girl from getting married too early. You've certainly not given her a life which would be a healthy option to being married. What have you done? It's a huge and complex problem.
The night comes, the ceremonial fire is lit and the expression on the children's face is one of pretty much utter bewilderment, I would say. The extent to which this young boy, who is about three years older than our five year old, understood what was going on, it was really not possible for us to know. The older brothers were obviously clearer about what was happening. These children were not and it's also because it's such a long-drawn-out ceremony, it has none of what we regard as the sort of tidiness of a Western ceremony. I now pronounce you husband and wife. Boom, we're done. It went on and on and on.
This is the picture that haunts me still and the reason I wanted to show it you afterward is that this pictures conveys utterly the confusing feeling of that evening. At this moment, she's taking a nap. She's been awaken from her nap and she's being carried to the ceremony and the tenderness that you see in this picture, on behalf of the man holding her, was absolutely what we saw there. It was one of the most complicated scenes I had ever seen as a reporter. Knowing that this child is going off to something that is a horrifying notion to me and at the same time, it being very clear that the people who were doing it, including this uncle who's carrying her, love her deeply and think they're doing the right thing for her. It is important also to remember that in India, unlike some of the other countries, there is a second ceremony that takes place. The plan typically, although not always, is that this child will live at home, in this case with her grandfather, and she will not go to her husband's family until she's past puberty. That second ceremony was called gauna and part of what they do in India is try as hard as they can to postpone the gauna, but it was the gentleness with which this man lifted her from sleep and took her to the ceremony, that really haunted me, and made me realize how far I had come from my original absolute clarity about everybody involved in this practice being simply evil.
Now, this child is someone for whom I want you to have some hope. I talked to you originally about some of the reasons that a parent, a loving parent would do this. You're protecting your child from possible rape because you live in a society in which loss of virginity before marriage renders a young woman an outcast, number one. Number two, you know in the abstract that people from the government have told you schooling is important. But that's kind of irrelevant when you live in a village where the only schooling your child can get to goes up to fifth grade. After fifth grade, there's a long bus ride that's required. There are predatory men on the bus which makes the bus ride itself dangerous. If you're in a culture like this, you don't send your child to that school no matter what a government person is telling you about the importance of schooling. That stops right there. If you have no cultural option, no effective schooling past fifth grade, no tradition of regard for the importance of individual right in choosing a marriage, a clear life involving rural life, agricultural work and some kind of poverty in your future, what do you do to protect your child? You make sure she's marrying into a good family and you do it very young so that she won't be attacked. She'll have some sort of respect as a married child already, and so that there's no chance that she can go astray.
This child lived in a village some distance away from the one we'd been at previously. She had been in a school where the government teachers understood how bad child marriage was, and they had really drummed into all of the children, “Don't do this. Don't do this.” Her older sister was getting married in a house just a few houses away and the night of the older sister's wedding, her mother drew her aside and said, “You too.” Tied a string around her wrist which was part of the ceremonial process. She jumped up and according to everybody that we talked to, including the mother, said to her mother and father, “If you do that, I will call the police and I will break your head with a rock.” Those were her actual words. She ran... The mom finally said this to me with some pride. This was some months afterward. She ran up the street to the home of a village worker. They have these India. They are paid for, very nominally, by the local governments and their job is to monitor public health in a general sort of way. The village worker went over with her own parents and in-laws to the village and said, “Don't ...” To this house and said, “Don't do this. Let us tell you all the reasons that this is a bad thing for your daughter.” Astonishingly finally, there was a huge row apparently, the entire village got in on it, the parents were persuaded. She was not married off and by the time I met her some months later, she was an avid cricket player and those are movie star pictures that she has up in her room, and she was preparing to go on to middle school and beyond.