Too Young to Wed uses photography to highlight the harrowing impact of child marriage on young girls globally.
By Jason Chiang
Nujoud Ali, two years after her divorce from her husband at only eight years old. He was more than 20 years her senior. Photograph courtesy Stephanie Sinclair
Every year, throughout the world, millions of young girls are forced into marriage. In many countries, child marriage is outlawed and international agreements forbid the practice, yet this tradition still spans continents, language, religion, and class. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that globally, one in every five girls is married, or in union, before reaching age 18. In the least developed countries, that number doubles. Approximately 40 peecent of girls are married before age 18, and 12 percent of girls are married before age 15.
This is why Too Young to Wed (TYTW) is fighting to eliminate child marriage worldwide. Founded in 2012 by American photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair, the nonprofit organization uses photography to highlight the harrowing impact of child marriage on young girls globally.
Sinclair was first exposed to child marriage while working on a story in 2003 about women and girls setting themselves on fire in Afghanistan, most of whom had been forced into marriage as children. “Naïvely, I’d assumed those kinds of things no longer occurred in the world; the horror of learning otherwise is really where the Too Young to Wed project began,” Sinclair told SPAN. “I vowed to dedicate myself to ending child marriage. In the following years I traveled to Nepal, Ethiopia, India, Tanzania, Yemen and even parts of the United States, including New York City, researching and photographing this practice. In every community, I found wonderful activists eager to help.”
In communities where child marriage is prevalent, families are under tremendous social pressure to uphold the practice. Failure to conform can bring ridicule, disapproval, shame to the family, and loss of status. “Once, a mother in Afghanistan told me, ‘We are selling our daughters because we don’t have enough food to feed the rest of our children,’” Sinclair recalls. Parents and communities want the best for their girls, but do not realize that by limiting their education and marrying them off at such a young age, they are putting the girls at risk and perpetuating the cycle of powerlessness and poverty.
As TYTW’s founding executive director, Sinclair has sought to use the power of visual storytelling to provide visual evidence of the human rights challenges faced by girls and women around the world. TYTW amplifies the voices of courageous girls and women in order to generate attention, passion, and resources to inspire the global community to work towards ending gender-based violence. TYTW is committed to turning influential advocacy into tangible action on the ground through partnerships with non-governmental organizations and by supporting initiatives in affected communities.
One of TYTW’s most impactful initiatives sought to inspire advocacy towards ending acid attacks, a disfiguring and sometimes deadly retributive act that is commonly perpetrated by men whose romantic advances are rejected. In late 2020, TYTW partnered with photojournalist Saumya Khandelwal and the Chhanv Foundation and Sheroes Hangout to facilitate a photo workshop project in Lucknow, culminating in an online exhibition the following year. “Our greatest achievement from TYTW’s Lucknow Photo Workshop was a confession by some of the participants. Before this, they said, they had stopped photographing themselves because they weren’t comfortable with the scars from the attack. This workshop, through the exercise of self portraits, made them comfortable with how they looked. It was as much a learning experience for me working with the women and Stephanie, as I thought it would be for the women,” Khandelwal told SPAN.
Anshu was only 15 years old when she survived an acid attack. Photograph courtesy Stephanie Sinclair
TYTW’s Photo Workshop brought together acid attack survivors to express themselves and advocate for their rights and dignity, in a collective trauma-healing experience. A young girl from Bijnor district in Uttar Pradesh, Anshu was only 15 years old at the time of her attack. In 2014, she was brutally attacked by a 55-year-old man after she refused his romantic advances. Today, Anshu embodies true courage and bravery through her advocacy and support for other survivors. Her achievements include presenting a speech at the 2018 IIM Lucknow TED Talks, and receiving the 2019 Face of Courage Award by The Quint. “I want to support survivors by ensuring their proper treatment, to speak with them about their hopes, and dreams and work with them to come up with a plan for their future,” Anshu said at the TYTW event in Lucknow. “If I am able to change a single life with it, I know I’m headed in the right direction.”
Sinclair’s TYTW photo series has earned numerous global accolades, including three World Press Photo awards and numerous prestigious exhibitions including the United Nations (2012, 2014) and the Whitney Biennial (2010) in New York.
In December 2020, the American Center in New Delhi hosted a panel featuring Sinclair and eight acid attack survivors from SHEROES Cafe. The event marked the end of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence and commemorated Human Rights Day. The survivors shared their personal stories on how photography provided them an outlet for creativity and self expression. The event was live-streamed on American Center’s Facebook page and was followed by a virtual exhibit titled #ThroughTheLens.
For more information on Too Young to Wed and Stephanie Sinclair, please visit tooyoungtowed.org and stephaniesinclair.com
Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles