Senegal | 4.8.2020
Catwalk to Freedom is a first-of-its-kind initiative to use high fashion to tell the stories of South Sudanese girls facing early child marriage. Catwalk to Freedom doesn’t try to just solve this reality, but it also documents through narrative, photography and video the journeys of girls in South Sudan and Kenya who have experienced early marriage and who have fled or refused marriage, often at the expense of their own physical and emotional harm.
“I want to tell their stories, but show the beauty first before their pain. It’s time we change the narrative and tell African stories in a respectful and dignified way.”- says Nyagoa Nyuon
In South Sudan, fifty-two percent of girls under the age of eighteen are married.
High poverty rates and limited economic opportunities drive their families into a race “to sell off” their daughters as young as twelve years old to men 30 – 40 years their senior: once married, most of them drop out of school, they’re at a higher risk of maternal mortality and experience high levels of domestic abuse.
We interviewed NYAGOA NYUON, social activist, fashion designer, founder of William Nyuon Bany Foundation and House of Bany.
AAAA: How did the Catwalk to Freedom start?
NN: Catwalk to Freedom was officially launched in 2016. After moving back to South Sudan to help build the nation, I worked as a civil servant for several years. In those years I have witnessed many underage girls being forced into a marriage with a man much older than her. It hit home when my own cousin was forced by her father at age 13 years to 46 years old man. Something went off in my head and just couldn’t keep silent anymore. That when the universe introduced me to my co-founder Rebecca Mincy and we just clicked and registered and started rescuing young girls. My cousin was the first to be rescued and after we did it successfully, the rest was history.”
AAAA: Tell us more about the project
NN: Every time I am sitting down interviewing the young girls, I noticed that confidence and the innocence and beauty was hidden so far away… after dressing them up and starting shooting and showing them their photos, you could see that spark coming out. I want to tell their stories, but show the beauty first before their pain. It’s time we change the narrative and tell African stories in a respectful and dignified way.
AAAA: How do you involve the young girls in the project and how can they benefit from it?”
NN: We interviewed the girls and found out what they want to do and not what we think they should do… after it’s their freedom and they must catwalk every step of the way. Some become tailors, hairdressers, and the rest are starting school from scratch.
AAAA: What is their response to the project?”
NN: At first some girls didn’t know how to respond to their newfound freedom and end up needing therapy. A lot have gone through hell and so broken, but a few years the girls that we doubted will adapt to the new change, actually end up being our success stories. They are so brave.
AAAA: What’s the public response to the initiative?”
NN: Almost everyone loves the high-end photo shoot photos. It starts the uncomfortable conversations about forced and early marriage. It’s also beautiful images and some found hard the girls have never modelled before and it was their first time on the camera. For me, through the photos, I can see the beauty and most of all their pain and despite it all, they adjust their invisible crown and smile to the camera. It’s just beautiful and sad in a way.
AAAA: Are you planning to expand the project in other countries other than South Sudan?”
NN: We would love to set up where refugees are mostly affected. For example in Kenya, Kakuma, Uganda, Ethiopia.
AAAA: Tell us about your next event.
NN: The next event we are working on is raising funds to shoot a short documentary about refugee girls and forced and early marriages in the refugee camp. Ethiopia and Uganda are badly effected and young girls are being sold off as low as 2000USD. We want to raise awareness.
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