Wide-eyed and haunted, the heartbreaking expressions on these young girls’ faces hint at an innocence cruelly snatched away.
They should be playing, learning and enjoying their childhood. But instead these youngsters, some as young as five, are being married off in secret weddings. It is estimated that every year this happens to ten to 12 million girls in the developing world.
In India, the girls will typically be attached to boys four or five years older, an investigation in the June issue of National Geographic magazine has found. But in Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and other countries with even higher rates of marriage at an early age, the husbands may be young men, middle-aged widowers or even abductors who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterwards.
‘Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him’: Tahani (in pink) was just six years old when she she married Majed, 25 (standing next to her). The young wife posed for this portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their mountain home in Hajjah, Yemen
Forced early marriage thrives in many regions, often in defiance of national laws. Whole communities often prescribe to the notion that it is as an appropriate way for a young woman to grow up when the alternative is the risk she loses her virginity to someone before she marries.
Wedding ceremonies are often held in the middle of the night, with the whole village keeping the secret for fear there might be a police raid.
In a project for National Geographic magazine, journalist Cynthia Gorney and photographer Stephanie Sinclair travelled to Yemen and Rajasthan in India to investigate the extent of this shocking practice.
In India girls may not legally marry before the age of 18 – but ceremonies involving girls in their teens may be overlooked. The younger daughters, some aged five, tend to be added on discreetly, their names kept off the invitations.
In one case in Rajasthan where her teenage sisters were also being married, a five-year-old bride named Rajani fell asleep before her wedding ceremony began.