Anita, 15, takes a photo during the Tehani Photo Workshop, which was held earlier this year for 18 Kenyan girls who escaped child marriage. (Stephanie Sinclair/Too Young to Wed)

They escaped child marriage. Now they're speaking out

Updated 4:20 PM ET, Fri December 22, 2017

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(CNN)Eunice was just 9 years old when she was married off to a man older than her father.

The young girl from northern Kenya lived with the man for two weeks, she said, enduring abuse before she ran away with the help of another of his wives.
"She told me the next morning: 'You will pretend that you are going to look after the cattle, then I will show you the road to escape.' "
The road led Eunice to the Samburu Girls Foundation, a nonprofit that has rescued more than 1,000 Kenyan girls from forced marriages and harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation.
Now 15, Eunice is helping other young girls who have similar stories. She was recently a student mentor for the Tehani Photo Workshop, which put cameras into the hands of 18 Kenyan girls who escaped child marriage.
"We were really kind of helping them reclaim their narrative and understand that this is not something about just their community or that there's something wrong with them -- this is happening to girls around the world," said Stephanie Sinclair, an award-winning photographer who founded the nonprofit Too Young to Wed and has been working on the issue for about 15 years now.
Students participate in the community exhibition at the end of the Tehani Photo Workshop in Kenya. (Nicole Sobecki/Too Young to Wed)
Every year, 15 million girls around the world are married before the age of 18 -- that's about one every two seconds, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 800 organizations committed to ending child marriage.
Although the problem is largest in sub-Saharan Africa, where four in 10 girls are married before the age of 18, it is found in nearly every region of the world, across many different cultures and religions.
It's not, however, an issue that is always in the spotlight. It's not a problem that is always easy for many people to see. Sinclair and her group are hoping to help change that, in part, through the photo workshops she started.
These workshops can be therapeutic for the girls, who form friendships and learn they are not alone. But they can also be empowering and a source of real change.
"You can tell your story so you can protect other people from kind of having to go through the same thing," Sinclair said.
Student mentor Eunice, 15, photographs Mary, 16, during the workshop. (Stephanie Sinclair/Too Young to Wed)
Sinclair recalled watching these young Kenyan girls speak out at the end of the workshop, when they held a photo exhibition in front of more than 100 members of their community, including members of the government.
"They kind of admonished them for not protecting their rights and not protecting the girls in their community," Sinclair said.
In 2014, Kenya's Parliament set the minimum age of marriage to 18. But as in many countries, there is still work to be done.
"In some countries it's legal, and in some countries it's not," Sinclair said. "In most countries it is illegal in some way, but it's a cultural tradition.
"The community awareness is still not where it needs to be. And they don't really understand that there are alternatives. They don't understand that the girls' value is more than just their bodies. It's more than their ability to work in the farms or take care of the cattle or cook. If they're educated, they can bring so much more. They can be doctors, they can be psychologists, they can be engineers, they can be teachers, they can do all kinds of things that they can bring back to their community and then also bring them out of a level of poverty where the most extreme forms of child marriage are definitely happening -- in underdeveloped areas. The poverty is cyclical there."
Too Young to Wed founder Stephanie Sinclair greets one of the girls' mothers at the end of the photo workshop in Kenya. (Nicole Sobecki/Too Young to Wed)
It was in 2003 when Sinclair became fully aware of the problem of child marriage. She was in Herat, Afghanistan, doing a project about girls who were committing suicide by setting themselves on fire.
"Many of the girls were married very young, and by that I mean prepubescent, between the ages of 9 and 13," she said. They were trying to escape their lives and a lifetime of abuse.
Sinclair did more research into the issue and noticed that there weren't many photographs about it. Since then, she has taken the problem head-on, eventually starting her nonprofit.
"We began Too Young to Wed to give back directly to girls," she said. "And we do that through scholarships for many of the girls in my photographs. We do it through the photography workshops."
Sinclair hopes to do her next workshops in Nigeria, with girls who were abducted by Boko Haram, and in India, with girls who were burned with acid because they rejected proposals.
"I found my independence and empowerment through photography. ... I'm also a big believer in journalism and the power of journalism and of sharing one's story," she said.
The following photos were all taken by Kenyan girls in the Tehani Photo Workshop, which was sponsored by Canon:
Anita, 15, took this photo of Rosilla, also 15, during the workshop. "When I was 10, my father married me off," Anita said. "When the morning came, I was circumcised. ...  I would like to say to the parents they should educate all the children. They should not discriminate between a boy and girl, because boys and girls are equal." (Courtesy Anita/Too Young To Wed)
Linnet, left, and Eunice — both 15 — share a laugh in their rooms at the Ngari Hill Eco-Lodge in Maralal, Kenya. "What I tried to show while taking that photo is that the girls are happy because they are studying," said Mary, a 16-year-old who took the photo. (Courtesy Mary/Too Young To Wed)
Anita, 15, as photographed by Jane, also 15. "Before I attended this workshop, I was afraid to talk in front of people and to share my story," Jane said. "But now, I have that courage to talk in front of people and to lead people." (Courtesy Jane/Too Young To Wed)
Modestar, 15, contemplates her next photograph in this shot taken by Jackline, 15. "I remember in one case (the girls) kept climbing up into the trees and taking these pictures, and I was like, 'You guys have to be careful,' " Sinclair said. "And they were like are you kidding me? I slept in the trees to keep myself from being eaten by animals when I ran away from my marriage." (Courtesy Jackline/Too Young To Wed)
Jackline, 15, as photographed by Modestar, 15. During the workshop's final exhibition, Jackline encouraged the audience to protect their girls. "You're selling your daughters for four cows that will eventually die of hunger due to the existing drought," she said. "You can give her out to be married off, but she might be tomorrow's member of Parliament." (Courtesy Modestar/Too Young To Wed)
Eunice, 15, makes a photograph of the class during the Tehani Photo Workshop. She participated in the very first workshop and returned this year as a student mentor. (Courtesy Eunice/Too Young To Wed)
Jane, 15, as photographed by Anita, 15. Anita shared the meaning behind this photo at the community exhibition: "She is displaying her happiness, thinking 'I can now continue with my life!' " (Courtesy Anita/Too Young To Wed)
Susan, 15, and Silvana, 16, walk together in this photo by Mercy, 14. "I woke up very early in the morning today. I am as happy as a king," Mercy wrote in her workshop journal. "I am so happy to learn how to use a camera and take a photo, and so many other things about life. I believe in all my heart that girls can do anything." (Courtesy Mercy/Too Young To Wed)
Too Young to Wed founder Stephanie Sinclair is an American photographer based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.