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Gender, Violence Against Women
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Asia, South Asia
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India, Children, South Asia, Youth, Child Marriage
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Young girls globally are often forced into marriage by their families, culture and economic situation. This practice destroys their chance at education, often leading to lifelong abuse and health issues.
Stephanie Sinclair

2008 — professional winner

"Peace is not merely an absence of war, but the nurture of human life." - Jane Addams, 1931 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

I met 15-year-old Marzia as she lay in a corner of the burn ward at Herat Public Hospital in western Afghanistan. Five weeks beforehand, the teenager plugged in the television that her husband had recently bought for her, and it short-circuited. Terrified at the prospect of her husband's wrath, Marzia set herself on fire.

The young girl had never been to school and was sold into marriage at age 8.

After meeting many young girls in Herat's burn ward like Marzia - married off to strangers often before the age of puberty - I decided to take a serious look into the issue of early marriage. What I found were mere kids being forced into adult roles physically, mentally and sexually.

And this practice is by no means limited to Afghanistan. The UN Population Fund, which tracks global reproductive patterns, has noted a significant early marriage problem in at least 49 countries worldwide.

I followed this issue of early marriage and its consequences to Ethiopia and Nepal, where I witnessed communities struggling from within to put an end to these harmful, traditional practices. Though each culture is distinct in its approach to this issue, these early unions, no matter the geography, often have catastrophic results: Young brides discontinue their educations. Youth and inexperience leave them vulnerable to abuse at the hands of their spouses. Early pregnancies endanger their health. If they try to leave the marriage, they often fall victim to trafficking, prostitution and AIDS.

Statistics show that serious physical abuse is common among young brides, as they are simply too young to know how to behave properly as wives. They thus face the wrath of their husbands and in-laws, living in a culture of fear within their homes. Last year I met 15-year-old Jamila in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Already a mother of two, she was stabbed several times by her husband after leaving to see her mother without permission. She was later forced to return to his home. He was never prosecuted.

The experience of pregnancy can also be traumatizing for a girl who is still a child herself. She is more likely to have obstructed labor as her small body may be compromised during childbirth. Prolonged obstructed labor can then lead to fistula, a debilitating condition where the girl can no longer control her urine and bowel movements. In Ethiopia, Yekaba, 15, was in labor for three days before her family was able to get her to a hospital. She later developed fistula and was shunned by her neighbors who believed her cursed by God.

Child brides have double the pregnancy death rate of women in their 20s. The Afghan public health minister has said that 50 to 70 mothers die every day from birth complications, what he calls "a silent tsunami" for Afghanistan.

There are currently two bills before the U.S. Congress on the issue of child marriage. I plan to seize this opportunity by revisiting some countries and exploring the differing cultural and religious contexts and the effects they have on the issue of child marriage.

For instance, in some rural parts of Nepal, women are forced to give birth in the fields alone, as elders believe women are unclean during childbirth. One woman told me how she struggled for days to return to her village with her baby - who was breach - hanging out of her feet-first the entire way. Miraculously, the baby survived. The woman, now in her 30s, was married as a young teen. I plan to return to Nepal and document a young bride as she deals with specific traditional practices like this, while also facing the more common challenges of early marriage.

My goal is to create a compassionate portrait of young girls worldwide who are being forced into early adulthood. I want people to hear their haunting stories in their own small voices, like when 16-year-old Mejgon of Herat, Afghanistan, described losing her virginity after being sold by her father to a 60-year-old man for two boxes of heroin.

"I don't know what the meaning of love is ... In my whole life, I have never felt it," Mejgon

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Family members and guests dance before the wedding of three young girls Radha, 15, Gora, 13, and Rajni, 5, to their young grooms Aleen, Giniaj, and Kaushal. The three couples - three sisters married to three brothers - were married on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. The auspicious day is said to bring good luck to couples married then and is widely known in Rajasthan as the day most child marriages occur. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Radha, 15, has the wedding ritual of henne painted on her arms the day before the festivities begin. Three young sisters Radha, 15, Gora, 13, and Rajni, 5, were married to their young grooms Aleen, Giniaj, and Kaushal, who were also siblings, on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. The auspicious day is said to bring good luck to couples married then and is widely known in Rajasthan as the day most child marriages occur. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Rajni, 5, sits in her home with her sisters on the day before her wedding. Three young sisters Radha, 15, Gora, 13, and Rajni, 5, were married to their young grooms Aleen, Giniaj, and Kaushal, who were also siblings, on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Radha, 15, observes herself in a cracked mirror the day before her wedding. Three young sisters Radha, 15, Gora, 13, and Rajni, 5, were married to their young grooms Aleen, Giniaj, and Kaushal, who were also siblings, on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Rajni, 5, was woken up around 4 am to participate in the wedding ceremony. Here, she is carried by her uncle. Three young sisters Radha, 15, Gora, 13, and Rajni, 5, were married to their young grooms Aleen, Giniaj, and Kaushal, who were also siblings, on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Kaushal and Rajni, 5, participate in the marriage ceremony after 4 am. Three young sisters Radha, 15, Gora, 13, and Rajni, 5, were married to their young grooms Aleen, Giniaj, and Kaushal, who were also siblings, on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Fifteen-year-old Sarita's face, covered in tears and sweat, is covered before she is sent to her new home with her groom. The previous day, she and her young sister, Maya, 8, were married to another set of siblings on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Maya, 8, and Kishore, 13, pose for a wedding photo inside their new home, the day after the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Children watch Balika Vadhu, a television show currently being broadcast on Colors TV in India. The serial is set up in rural Rajasthan and deals with the practice of child marriage, a social custom still prevalent in parts of India. Rahul Chhabra, spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Washington, says his government "is aware of the problem and trying to do its best," imposing jail terms and fines, even for those attending weddings of underage brides. Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation
Portrait of Sunil Nayak, 13, inside her bedroom at her home in the rural Rajasthan. Nayak refused her marriage the year before, when she was just 12 years old. She was supposed to wed the same day her two older teenage sisters were married. The night before the event, Sunil's mother tied a string around her wrist and told her she was also to be married. However, Sunil refused, and even threatened violence should she be forced. This caused a major disruption in the village but she was allowed to remain at home and is still in school today. "Girls are gradually saying 'no' to child marriage," said Anil Gulati, a spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which works with authorities to fight child marriage. Gulati said girls have become bolder by encouraging each other and getting media publicity for their refusal. "This has a slowly growing momentum which will take some time, but it will have a lot of value." Stephanie Sinclair/Alexia Foundation