Trading childhood for marriage

At age 11, Destaye, center, marries 23-year-old Addisu in a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox wedding in 2008. Photo by Stephanie Sinclair

At age 11, Destaye, center, marries 23-year-old Addisu in a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox wedding in 2008. Photo by Stephanie Sinclair

Destaye’s wedding wasn’t what she had always dreamed of. She wasn’t celebrating her union with the man she loved.

She was 11 years old, being forced to marry Addisu, a 23-year-old Ethiopian Orthodox priest who had chosen her to be his wife because she was young enough to ensure that she would still be a virgin. That day, she felt ashamed.

“Everyone was telling me I was lucky,” Destaye said in a video interview.

Photographer Stephanie Sinclair said the priest’s choice of Destaye honors the family, and her husband “really is lovely,” but Destaye had wanted to be more than a wife.

“By reading and doing my homework, I hoped it would give me a better future,” Destaye said. “I wanted to become a doctor because it would help me achieve a higher level of education.”

Sinclair, one of the most honored photojournalists today, documented Destaye’s wedding day in the outskirts of Gondar, Ethiopia, in 2008 as a part of her project on child marriage. Sinclair received her third Visa d’Or feature photography award for the series in 2012, making her the first photographer to win it three times.

Captured in these pictures first seen on CNN, Sinclair returned to Gondar in 2012 to see Destaye, who is now 15 and has dropped out of school to take care of her baby.

“She’s mentally settled into that this is her life, but it’s still tough to see that there’s some serious lost potential and opportunity,” Sinclair said.

Sinclair has spent nearly a decade investigating child marriage in India, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nepal and Ethiopia. Today, the United Nations Population Fund and Sinclair are celebrating the first ever International Day of the Girl Child with the launch of Too Young to Wed, a campaign against child marriage with a multimedia site featuring Sinclair and other documentarian’s works.

When Sinclair sees these girls, it isn’t her marriage that comes to mind. She remembers her childhood.

“What I think about is how when I was that age, how lucky I was to not have the burdens of life on me until I was older,” Sinclair said.

Worldwide, by 2010, about 67 million women 20 to 24 years old had been married before they were 18, according to the Population Fund. Child marriage is found in all regions of the world but is most common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, both proportionally and in count. Most countries, including Ethiopia, have laws preventing it, but most of them do not enforce those laws.

Sinclair visited and revisited Ethiopia because of its particularly high rates of child marriage: 41% of Ethiopian women between 20 and 24 were married underage.

For a 15-year-old wife and mother like Destaye, it is most likely that she will end up having approximately six risky pregnancies and live births because of the high infant mortality rate, according to a Population Fund representative. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the greatest cause of death and disability among girls 15 to 19.

In addition, Destaye will most likely not be able to go back to school, even though her husband had promised when they got married that she could finish schooling regardless of whether she had children.

“Addisu is caught in these intense traditions but wants better for his family,” Sinclair said. Addisu realized that Destaye’s education would improve their lives. But, ultimately, he gave into the societal pressures, making his wife have a child and end her schooling, Sinclair said.

Unlike communities she visited in other countries such as Yemen and Afghanistan, the Ethiopian people are exposed to the global community and have aid programs to prevent child marriage. Sinclair said there is already prevention, but she hopes her campaign will provide more for the girls already married.

“Even though I’ve been working on this for a decade, I feel like there’s much more to do,” Sinclair said. “I believe every girl deserves a childhood.”

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