The faces of child brides

Dramatic photos depict the young wives of Afghanistan.

Published July 10, 2006 7:39PM (EDT)

The New York Times Magazine published a harrowing photo essay by Stephanie Sinclair yesterday that depicts child brides in Afghanistan. One photo shows Ghulam Haider, who looks much older than her 11 years, sitting next to her grizzled 40-year-old husband and flashing him a suspicious, piercing look. The caption notes that before she became engaged, Ghulam had hoped to become a teacher.

As reporter Barry Bearak writes in the accompanying text, early marriages are arranged for a variety of reasons -- to relieve debts, because virginity is such a prized commodity and "parents prefer to yield their daughters before misbehavior or abduction has brought the family shame and made any wedding impossible." Most are simply "family transactions" and the younger the bride, the more prized she is. "Girls are valuable workers in a land where survival is scratched from the grudging soil of a half-acre parcel," Bearak writes. "In her parents' home, a girl can till fields, tend livestock and cook meals. In her husband's home, she is more useful yet. She can have sex and bear children." The dire health costs of not-yet-mature bodies going through childbirth include an increased risk of hemorrhaging and obstructed labor.

Bearak, a gorgeous writer who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Afghanistan, says that when he lived in the country, rarely did he see "anything more heartbreaking than the tears of a relinquished child." And you won't read anything more heartbreaking than the quote from Ghulam that ends this article.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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