By: Fatema Makki
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Stephanie Sinclair, has been documenting child marriage all over the world for more than a decade. In an interview conducted by
Rena Silverman for National Geographic News; and after attending a recent United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) Sinclair explains how, in certain developing countries, “driven largely by poverty and cultural traditions, [early] marriages are usually arranged by family members. The physical and emotional consequences can be life shattering, even fatal.”
Q: What do you find most disturbing about child marriage?
A: I think the thing that we must acknowledge is that in most cases these young children do not want to be married. They want normal lives. They want to play with their friends, they want to be educated, and they want to have a full adolescence. These marriages rob many girls of their innocence, many times before puberty, and this is something that as a global society we cannot tolerate. The bottom line is that child marriage isn't just harmful to the girls involved. It is at the root of so many other societal ills: poverty, disease, maternal mortality, infant mortality, violence against women. All of those are symptoms connected to the same problem. If you solve the child marriage problem, these other issues benefit as well. And as the speaker at last week's CSW event put it: Let us be honest, when an eight-year-old has sex with a 20-something-year old, that's rape. It is child rape. It's something we cannot be okay with.
Sinclair explains that since the NGM story ran in 2011, efforts to stop child marriage, and after The Elders, a group of world leaders, dedicated to peace and human rights, the issue has become a priority issue and formed Girls Not Brides.It now has over 200 members based throughout Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America-all united by a commitment to end child marriage and enable girls to fulfill their potential.
Q: What more can be done?
A: A multifaceted approach is needed to address the issue of child marriage. Education is still the single most protective factor. This means keeping the children in school as long as possible, as well as educating the communities about the harmful impact of child marriage on the health of their girls, their grandchildren, and their societies as a whole. I also strongly believe there is not just a need for awareness-raising and prevention work, but we must also find ways to help the girls who are already in these marriages, be it through giving financial incentives to their families to let them stay in school, or vocational training so they can have more say in their lives and households. Quality medical treatment is also needed for girls who are giving birth at young ages. These girls need long-term solutions.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. But there seems to be a growing movement aimed at ending child marriage. A few months ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-sponsored pilot program in Bangladesh that will work with religious leaders, media, local governments, and NGOs to foster community support for an end to child marriage. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of The Elders, has announced a very ambitious goal: to end the practice by 2030. If this issue remains a global priority, I'm optimistic that we can meet that deadline. There are always ways to do it. You just have to be creative. A lot of initiatives have started, but it's about keeping the momentum.
Q: You have heard the personal stories of many child brides. Was there one that especially moved or outraged you?
A: They are all heartbreaking, but probably the one that got me the most was the little girl Tahani. She was eight when I met her, but six when she was married to her 25-year-old husband in Hajjah, Yemen. Even though she looks young-her teeth havenot even grown in yet-there is a matter-of-factness about her that makes her seem older, which is clear evidence of trauma, otherwise she would not be so dissociated talking about her sexual experience at age eight. Serious innocence has been lost. She went to school, she even lived next to a school, but wasn't able to complete her education because once her mother died, there was no one to stand up for her.
Q: Are there any happy endings you can share?
A: Yes. In 2010, I photographed a Yemeni girl named Nujoud Ali. Nujoud was one of the lucky ones. Due to her own bravery and with the help of a female lawyer named Shada Nasser, Nujoud was able to get a divorce at age 10, just a few months after her marriage. She is now having a second chance at life. We can only hope that other girls will get the support they need should they want to take the same steps.
His Eminence, the late Religious Authority, Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah (ra), says: “early marriage is intended to safeguard man and deter him from any forbidden act. There is no disagreement over the fact that early marriage satiates one’s lust for sex, which could lead to deviation if left unsatisfied…
However, early marriage is one thing, while marrying girls before reaching the age of religious liability is another issue.
The Islamic system of the family is based on that the marriage contract is the agreement that the two contracting parties should abide by. The contract also governs the relations between the two spouses. That is because marriage is considered the practice of both parties out of their free will of their commitments. Among these commitments that both spouses meet on is that they will live together in the same house in which the husband holds the responsibility of providing for it at a level that guarantees for the wife the human conditions of living (which she would be acquainted with before concluding the contract and which signing the contract means that she accepts them - the translator).
However, for the female to be able to commit herself the aforementioned agreement, she must be religiously liable (Mukalafah). One must point that coming of age is one thing, and becoming religiously liable is another. In other words, not all those who come of age are considered religiously reliable and are to be held responsible for their actions. While early marriage is recommended, marriage consummated before a girl reaches the age of becoming religiously liable is impermissible.
In Islam, females, just like their male counterparts, have the right to enjoy inalienable fundamental rights to which a woman is entitled to because she is a human being. She is born free and has the right of the recognition of her inherent dignity. In addition, she has the right to have an appropriate name, to obtain an education, to take part in the process of decision making regarding all aspects of her life.