One month ago, my father told me to prepare a nice meal because we were having a very special guest. I did not dare asking who that person was, but I was very excited about this visitor. I prepared my father's favorite dish, Qorma Alou-Bokhara wa Dalnakhod. All afternoon, I took care of the house, cleaned so much that no dust could be seen in the sunrays coming from the window. While I was cooking, I timidly asked my mother if she had any idea who the special guest was. She told me not to be so curious and impatient.
In the evening, the guest finally arrived. An old man with very dirty pants and a lungee (turban) entered the house. He looked at me in a very strange way, which made me feel very embarrassed. He greeted my father and pointed his finger in my direction, asking if I was "the one". Then it occurred to me that maybe my father said some nice things about my cooking, so I blushed. Then they sat on the floor and my father told me to bring the food. While preparing the dishes, I overheard my father and the guest talk about money. Our family is very poor, so I imagine this man will give us money.
While I was serving the food to the man, he gave me that look again. I felt horribly ashamed and guilty. Maybe my veil was not in the right position. Or was it my cooking which was not good enough? I was all confused about that look. It seemed like a nice look but in the same way it was very scary and embarrassing.
Before he left, the man asked to see me one more time. I was very confused: what had I done for him to want to see me? I was hoping he wanted to compliment me for my cooking. I slowly walked towards him and stood there, waiting for the unexpected. He put his hand on my shoulder and made me turn. Then he took my chin in his smelly hands and looked at me without smiling for what seemed like a very long time. After that he said bye to my father and left.
My father did not tell me to go so I stayed at the door. He looked at me and said: "This man is good. You will be his wife." And he left me there. For a moment I did not really realized what he said. This could simply not be. I have one older sister, and she is not married. Why me? Why now? Why with him?
I talked to my mother about this wedding. She said this man will take care of me and send me to school; he will be something like a father. I was even lucky to have him. Until the wedding, I tried to convince myself that something good was indeed happening to me. Even more so during the ceremony. The man went on giving me that terrible look again. I still did not know what it meant. But it scared me.
After the ceremony, I said bye to my parents and siblings, and left the village with the man on a donkey. I was relieved to have a long veil, so I could hide from his look. The trip lasted two days, during which no single word was exchanged. We finally arrived in a village which looked similar to mine. He had a rather big house, but simple, filled with children and women. He brought me straight into a room, undressed me and squeezed my body against his, and did something very painful to me. It felt like he was literally entering my body. I could smell his horrible breath, and being so close to his disgusting body made me nauseous. I felt a terrible pain several days after this occurred.
I had all these questions coming in my head: why did he do this to me? Why is it so painful? Why would he come so close to me when he does not say a word to me? Do husbands to that to their wives? Are not women supposed to stay away from men? Is it my fault? Did he want to punish me for something? Was the look he had been giving me related to this?
Everything after that day was blurred. I had the feeling I was living a nightmare and would wake up anytime. The other women were not talking to me either. There was another girl my age in the house, but I have the feeling she was not the man's wife, maybe his daughter. I felt so lonely. The man did this same horrible thing to me many times. And every time was as painful, if not more, than the first time. None of my questions were answered.
* Although the little girl on the picture is a child bride from Afghanistan, married to the man next to her, this story was invented by me. It does not necessarily reflect her intimate emotions and feelings.
Early marriages are not only a problem in Afghanistan: worldwide there are about 51 million girls aged between 15 and 19 years who are forced into marriage. The youngest brides live in the Indian state of Rajasthan, where 15% of all wives are not even 10 years old when they are married. Child marriages are a reaction to extreme poverty and mainly take place in Asian and African regions where poor families see their daughters as a burden and as second-class citizens. Already in their younger years, girls are given into the "care" of a husband, a tradition that often leads to exploitation. Many girls become victims of domestic violence. In an Egyptian survey, about one-third of the interviewed child brides stated that they were beaten by their husbands. The young brides are under pressure to prove their fertility as soon as possible. But the risk for girls between the ages of 10 and 14 not to survive pregnancy is five times higher than for adult women. Every year, about 150,000 pregnant teenagers die due to complications - in particular due to a lack of medical care, let alone sex education.
For her project, Stephanie Sinclair also traveled to Nepal and Ethiopia. She wants to do research on the topic of child marriage in other regions as well and then publish a book on the issue.
UNICEF Photo of The Year Website
Photo: Stephanie Sinclair, USA, Freeleance Photographer, 1st Prize of the UNICEF Photo of the Year 2007