Last night, I had the opportunity during my visit here in DC to watch a discussion by Stephanie Sinclair about her work on child brides throughout the world. Her work was published in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic. Sinclair's first experience with child brides occurred during a visit to a burn ward in Herat, Afghanistan. She wondered why these young ladies were setting themselves on fire - one, a 15-year old who was married when she was nine, had broken her husband's television set and thought the consequences would be more severe than setting herself on fire. More than half at the burn ward were married underage. Sinclair wondered what issues led to this act, and her journey began. View Sinclair's photos here.
There are 50 countries in the world where child marriage is still practiced. There are many reasons child brides are wed. For instance, as in rural Yemen, it is a catch-22 situation. Girls can't go to school because there are no female teachers, but there are no female teachers because the girls are getting married before completing their education. Their education seems to come to a halt once they are married.
Sinclair said there needs to be more female teachers - education and empowerment and communities that change from the inside. Rules can't be forced on these communities. If a wedding is stopped by the authorities, it will only continue once they leave and the family will be disgraced for a generation.
Also, there is great cultural and practical pressure. For instance, if an unmarried woman is raped while working in a field before she is married, she is forever an outcast in her community. A girl's parents sometimes figure that having their daughter marry young will at least give her some respect and protection from this outcome. The weddings are also used as a way to connect families and to pay off debts.
I discovered that the issue of child brides is more complex than simply having authorities telling people to stop marrying their very young daughters. It will take education and an ability to incentivize communities to educate their daughters instead of marrying them off before they even have a childhood.