Weddings are canonically considered to be the best day of one’s life. Some people spend years dreaming about their wedding day. It’s not uncommon for children to simulate weddings as a playground activity, and many little girls enjoy dressing up as brides and playing pretend. For little girls in Kenya, however, dressing up as a bride is not a game, and their wedding days are likely to be among the worst days of their lives.
Eunice had been only nine years old when she was married off to a man older than her father. She endured weeks of abuse from the man she was forced to wed before she was able to run away with the help of one of his other wives. Eunice was rescued by the Samburu Girls Foundation, a nonprofit that has rescued over 1,000 girls from child marriage, genital mutilation, and beading survivors to date.
Eunice, now 15, helps to empower young girls who suffered through similar experiences to her own. She recently served as a student mentor at the Tehani Photo Workshop, a program that empowers former child brides through photography. Award-winning photographer Stephanie Sinclair launched the program through the nonprofit organization, Too Young To Wed, which she founded in 2012.
Sinclair had been photographing child marriages around the world for 15 years when she decided to partner with the Samburu Girls Foundation to create a program that she hoped could provide a healing outlet for survivors. The program’s name is in honor of Tehani, an eight-year-old child bride who Sinclair had encountered in Yemen and was unable to escape her marriage.
“Research shows that when girls are empowered and have strong connections outside of the family, they have a better chance of protecting themselves and their future,” Sinclair told The New York Times. “The independence that comes with [a career in photography], the knowledge you acquire through meeting other people, and the freedom the camera gives you to express yourself can’t be underplayed. Instinctively, I knew that a photo workshop could nurture the girls in a unique way.”
According to Girls Not Brides, 15 million girls around the world who are under the age of 18 are married every year, which is equivalent to one child marriage every two seconds. Despite the overwhelming number of victims, the issue is not broadcasted to the extent it should be across Western media. Sinclair’s photo workshops serve to not only empower the young girls affected, but also to increase exposure of the issue.
“They say that every girl who is empowered impacts at least 250 people in her community,” Sinclair told National Geographic. “Though we’ve only had 22 students so far, slowly those number add up.”
The first assignment the students completed was to take a portrait of another student. “To make a great portrait,” Sinclair explained, “you have to know who you’re photographing; you have to share your story with your partner. Some girls had never shared their stories before. That was very powerful. We were a little taken aback when they had such an emotional reaction, but some of the girls who had shared their stories before said, ‘No, no. They need to do this.’”
For some of the girls, the photo workshop became a form of therapy. “It was really unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Sinclair said. “The portraits that came out were quite powerful for girls who had only picked up the camera the day before. I think they found photography [to be] a way to communicate what they’d been through.”
In 2014, the country’s parliament set the minimum age of marriage to 18, signifying that Kenya is moving in the right direction. Some cultures continue to practice the tradition of child marriage, but this illegalization is the first step toward the cessation of the issue.
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