At age 11, Ghulam was married off to 40-year-old Jaiz in a rural Afghan village, making her only one of more than 10 million young girls who are being forced to wed men old enough to be their fathers or grandfather every year.
In an effort to start a global conversation about the devastating effects of early marriages, which are currently practiced in more than 50 developing countries, the United Nations designated October 11 as International Day of the Girl Child this year.
To mark the occasion and draw attention to the problem of child brides, photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair teamed up with National Geographic to create a series of heart-breaking photos depicting girls as young as five years old being married off to middle-aged men in countries like India, Yemen and Ethiopia.
Although child marriage is against the law in many countries, and international treaties forbid the practice, it is estimates that about 51 million girls below age 18 are currently married, often under the cover of darkness and in secret. In Afghanistan alone, it is believed that approximately 57 per cent of girls wed before the legal age of 16.
Various factors drive parents of child brides to marry off their daughters, from the community’s pressure to confirm to age-old cultural customs to economic considerations. In poor, developing nations, it is not uncommon for families to settle debts by offering their daughters as payment.
Beside India, where girls are usually wed to boys who are only a couple of years their senior, the husbands may be decades older than their prepubescent betrothed. It is not uncommon for men to kidnap girls and rape them first before trying the knot.
Since 2003, Sinclair has been traveling to remote corners of the world in countries like Nepal and Yemen to document weddings of child brides and their transformation into young mothers in the hope of giving them a voice and raising awareness of the problem.
Experts agree that early marriage denies the girls education and robs them of their childhood because most young wives, burdened by grownup responsibilities, do not get a chance to interact with their peers or carry on friendships outside the household.
Ghulam, the 11-year-old bride from Afghanistan who was married off in 2005, was forced to drop out of school, giving up on her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Parents often remove their daughters from school even before they are engaged to limit their interactions with boys.
In many cases, the girls are lorded over by their husbands and in-laws, leaving them vulnerable to domestic violence as well as physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
Underage wives who are lucky enough to escape from their husbands end up living in poverty, or worse. Some girls turn to prostitution to earn a meager income and enter brothels, where they are subjected to horrific abuse.
Most girls who enter early marriages are expected to get pregnant right away, which often leads to tragedy for both the mothers, who are still children themselves, and their babies.
Adolescent wives are more likely to have obstructed labor because their bodies have not fully developed yet. Statistics show that pregnancy death for child brides is double that of women in the 20s, according to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
One doctor based in the Yemeni capital Sanaa listed some of the medical consequences of forcing girls into sex and childbirth before they are physically mature – ripped vaginal walls and internal ruptures called fistulas which can lead to life-long incontinence.
Girls are often too young to understand the concept of reproduction. The doctor said: ‘The nurses start by asking, “Do you know what’s happening?” “Do you understand that this is a baby that has been growing inside of you?”‘
Unless international organizations take steps to reverse the troubling trend, it is estimated that over the next decade, 100 million more girls—or about 25,000 girls a day—will marry before they turn 18.
Read more: Dailymail