Child Brides: A Cultural Wake-Up Call

November 7, 2011

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Experts on the practice of child marriage transformed their extensive reporting to a call for internal cultural change Thursday night at the Boston Public Library.

The forum, titled Child Brides: The Health and Human Consequences of Marrying Too Young, featured acclaimed reporters who have worked on the topic with both National Geographic and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

13-year-old girl sits with her 45-year old husband, his first wife and their child. Photo by Stephanie Sinclair. / Courtesy of user Jason Drakeford, Via Flickr Commons

13-year-old girl sits with her 45-year old husband, his first wife and their child. Photo by Stephanie Sinclair. | Photo courtesy of user Jason Drakeford, Via Flickr Commons

By means of film screening and conversation, the speakers brought the geographically distant issue of child marriage into the room, and more importantly, into the troubled minds of audience members.

Speakers included photographer Stephanie Sinclair, journalist Cynthia Gorney, reporters Hanna Ingber and Anna Tomasulo, as well as faculty from B.U.’s School of Public Health.

Sinclair and Gorney’s piece was featured in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic, and Sinclair worked in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to create a multimedia presentation on the topic.

Sinclair’s presentation was shown at the start of the forum, to project the voices and shed light on the faces of women who live and breath this tragedy. The main subject of the presentation was Tahani—an 8-year old girl who was married to a man in his 20s.

In order to get an all-encompassing idea on the practice, reporters traveled around the world to communities where child marriage was the norm. They went to villages in Afghanistan, Nepal, Northern India, Yemen and more.

“Child marriage is culturally based,” Sinclair said. “Its different in all parts of the world.”

Sinclair spoke to families who gave their daughters away due to lack of economic support, although she also spoke to families who supported the practice and thought it was “right.”

Reporters said that child marriage raises both questions of the girls’ rights as well as public health issues. Sinclair said that there are many repercussions of early marriage: young girls often die giving birth.

Reporters conversed with several families, and even attended some of the weddings.

“Your initial impulse is to grab the child and run…but it is so much more complicated than that,” Gorney said.

She stressed that the most difficult part of the project came with the question of intervention in family affairs; the hardest thing to comprehend was that many of the marriages arose from parents’ love and guidance.

“Marriage represents an honorable and culturally valid future for these girls,” Gorney said.

In order to put the practice in the proper cultural context, Gorney said that Westerners need to redo their notions of marriage—as the Western idea of marriage is seen as silly to many cultures.

She posed a question to the audience: How do you change a practice that is regarded the traditional way for girls to grow up?

According to Gorney, the answer is an internal revolution: we need to change these practices from the inside of communities out.

To see Cynthia Gorney and Stephanie Sinclair’s combined work for ‘National Geographic,’ go to http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/child-brides/gorney-text/1.