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Indonesia: why underage girls marry

Charli Shield
May 1, 2018

Two separate underage couples held weddings in Indonesia last week after seeking approval from a religious court. The marriages have stirred strong criticism at home and abroad with calls to end child marriage.


Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has responded to renewed pressure to end child marriage after a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy were wed on the island of Sulawesi last week.

The couple was permitted to marry by a religious court, after initially being rejected from the country's office of religious affairs. 

Footage of the union went viral on social media, prompting nationwide criticism of underage marriage. Just days later, videos surfaced online of another wedding between a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy in Lombok.

Pressure mounts

Women's rights activists in Indonesia have urged Jokowi to issue a presidential decree to outlaw the practice in the Southeast Asian country, which has one of the highest numbers of child marriages in the world.

"We have asked him to end child marriage in Indonesia," Naila Rizqi Zakiah, a public attorney from the Jakarta-based community legal center LBH Masyarakat, told DW.

Read more: Child marriage in Iran forces girls into a life of oppression 

On April 20, Zakiah was one of 18 Indonesian women's rights activists invited to meet with Jokowi at the presidential Bogor Palace, where she said they raised three issues: child marriage, sexual violence against women, and the controversial bill to revise the criminal code (which includes one contentious clause to criminalize sexual acts between unmarried men and women).

Zakiah said the president "responded to the call to end child marriage," agreeing to introduce a regulation to lift the minimum legal age for marriage to 20 for girls and 22 for boys (with parental consent).

Read more: Why implementing child bride verdict is a challenge in India

Progress on pause

Despite increasing socio-economic development, underage marriage remains prevalent in Indonesia, which is home to 255 million people and the world's largest Muslim population.

An estimated 17 percent of Indonesian girls are married before the age of 18, according to a collaborative report on child marriage from the Indonesian government and UNICEF called "Progress on Pause." Alarmingly, this report found that the prevalence of the practice has hit a plateau after decreasing for the past three decades.

Read more: UN: Child marriage dropped significantly in previous decade

Although this percentage is not as high as in countries like Bangladesh (74 percent) and Niger (76 percent), because of its enormous population Indonesia is among the top ten countries with the highest absolute number of child brides, ranking seventh globally.

UNICEF reports that 1,408,000 Indonesian women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18. And 50,000 girls under 15 still marry in Indonesia each year.

Contradictory laws

Under the 1974 Marriage Law, men and women are permitted to marry at the age of 21 without parental consent, and with parental approval girls can legally marry at 16 and boys at 19.

A loophole in this law — "dispensation" (exemption) — means that parents can legally allow their children to marry at effectively any age, even without their expressed consent, if they have the support of a religious or civil court.

This contradicts Indonesia's own 2002 law on child protection, which defines a child as someone under the age of 18, and the country's ratification of the UN convention on the Rights of a Child, which acknowledges child marriage as a human rights violation.

Women's rights activists and Indonesia's Women Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry have sought to change this, campaigning for the removal of dispensation from the Marriage Act.

"Now in Indonesia, parents can ask for dispensation to marry off their children if they are under 16 and 19. But we are asking that dispensation is eliminated from the act so that the religious court will not be able to marry off children under 20 and 22," Zakiah told DW.

Combating child marriages

Driving factors

Many not-for-profit organizations such as Girls Not Brides and Aliansi Remaja Independen (Independent Young People Alliance, ARI) attribute the prevalence of child marriage in Indonesia to poverty, a lack of education and rigid gender norms.

A recent study from BMC Public Health found that girls who live in rural areas in Indonesia are statistically more likely to be married before the age of 18, and those with "education, wealth and media exposure" less so. It also revealed that underage unions are often seen as a way out of poverty for poor families, although concluded that rather than improve economic status in the long term, "child marriage in Indonesia likely maintains or exacerbates poverty."

Hoko Horii, a researcher specializing in this topic from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, told DW it is not just socio-economic factors that drive child marriage, but deeply entrenched cultural traditions. Horii said her research has overwhelmingly revealed "social stigma" as a reason for the persistence of child marriage in Indonesia.

In families with a history of underage marriages, Horii told DW, girls who are unmarried at the age of 18 are "considered to be 'unattractive' or 'old-maids.'"

In cases where the couple is already in a "pacaran" (romantic relationship), or they become "too close," Horii said marriage is seen as a way of "avoiding 'zinah' — premarital sexual intercourse that is prohibited in Islam."

"In Indonesia being pregnant or giving birth out of wedlock is unacceptable," said Horii. "And abortion is basically illegal in Indonesia, so there is no other option than to get married if a girl gets pregnant."

Significant risks

Although it may protect young girls from social ostracization, child marriage has been shown to pose a significant health risk for children, particularly for young females who experience a higher rate of maternal mortality.

According to the report from BMC Public Health, complications during childbirth and pregnancy are one of the leading causes of death among adolescent girls in Indonesia. Children born to young mothers are also at greater risk of having poor nutritional health.  

Aditya Septiansyah, program manager of child marriage prevention at ARI, told DW that girls that marry underage are also far more likely to drop out of school, descend into poverty, and become victims of domestic violence.

Progress on Pause reiterates these concerns, labelling child marriage "a fundamental violation of girls' human rights," limiting their "education, health, future income, safety, agency and abilities."

Septiansyah uses the example of "FZ" from East Jakarta.

FZ was forced to marry after getting pregnant at the age of 14. She was then taken out of school to give birth and look after her son, while her husband works as a garbage collector. FZ, Septiansyah told DW, is now confined to a life of poverty with little chance of pursuing her education.

For this young Indonesian girl, Septiansyah said, "the impacts of childhood marriage are real."

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