Indonesia’s Problem with Child Marriage

For a 14-year-old girl named Susi in a rural Indonesian village, when the sun arose on a recent day, she faced a grim change in her life. At 7 am, she was to be married to Doni, a 15-year-old from the next village. While she likes him, they had only recently started dating and gossip was spreading fast.

The gossip quickly spread until the village’s leaders approached their parents and encouraged them to force their children’s marriage, telling them the family’s economic burden would decrease. Susi's life was now her teenage husband’s responsibility. Susi and Doni are no longer teenagers with ambitions and dreams for their future. Having no other choice, they are husband and wife, facing a lifetime of responsibility.

This is a common story in Indonesia, the story of hundreds of thousands of others. One in every six women is a child bride although in some areas of the country the rate of underage marriage rises to 35 percent. Ranking seventh in the world, and second in ASEAN after Cambodia, every year 340,000 Indonesian girls get married before their 18th birthday. Of that amount, 50,000 of them are under the age of 15 years, which is 136 girls every day and five for every hour.

Indonesia’s Marriage Law still limits marriage of girls to above the age of 16 although international law that sets the age limit of 18 years. The law, however, allows parents to marry off children before the age of 16 with the permission of local religious courts, which is very easily obtained.

The law also contradicts Indonesia's own 2002 law on child protection, which defines a child as someone under the age of 18.

If we include the number of child marriages conducted in secret – legalized by ordinary religion and culture but not registered in the Office of Religious Affairs and Civil Registration – the number of is far higher. The United Nations rates Indonesia among the 10 top countries in the world numerically, with 1.4 million women aged 20 to 24 married before the age of 18.

A widespread campaign to increase the age limit to 18 hit the wall in 2015, when the Constitutional Court let the 1974 Marriage Law remain valid.

The modern era of technology and information and the development of an advanced society pales in the face of ancient belief rooted in which considers children an economic burden rather than a blessing and source of happiness. Economic demands, cultural pressure and environment dictate that children, especially girls, must be married soon so that responsibility can be delegated to the husband.

Thus it isn’t surprising that the change in the age of marriage of children is somewhat stagnant. And constant is a sign of real decline. In the five years from 2010 to 2015, there has only been a 0.5 percent decline and the rate of child marriage remains above 23 percent. In rural areas, the marriage rate of children is 30 percent higher than in urban areas.

In this patriarchal country, women largely occupy low positions in which their dreams are dashed by cultural barriers that prevent them from becoming independent, successful, and empowered. While child marriage is illegal and can be considered a form of violence and discrimination against children, their right to develop and enjoy the quality of life is forcibly taken away.

The practice is unhealthy for both children and society. Among the reasons the practice should be outlawed is that girls who marry at a very young age have more vulnerable bodies to carry the burden of wife and mother. In addition, young married girls have a tendency to experience abuse and violence in the home. They often have no voice in relation to healthier and safer sex. This makes these girls more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV / AIDS.

Child marriage carries the high probability of early pregnancy, forcing bodies to mature prematurely. Equally, immature husbands don’t understand nutritional needs, concerns, and health of the wife, which also makes them vulnerable. At such a tender age, knowledge and experience of how to maintain healthy pregnancy for issues such as nutrition is minimal and incomplete.

Girls marrying before the age of 18 are less likely to be assisted by skilled health professionals during childbirth in comparison to women who marry later, 84.5 percent and 92.2 percent respectively.

Health is not the only risk. The greater risk is suffered by children born to children. Information on toddlers' growth, nutrients needed for healthy babies are lacking because young couples are lack both the mental, educational and physical capacity to be parents capable of wise decisions for their children.

In many cases of child marriages occurring in rural Indonesia, marriage is a crucial contributing factor to interrupting or ending schooling. With their new responsibilities and status as wives, few girls continue their education. Some 85 percent of girls married before 18 end their education once they get married. They are six times less likely to complete secondary school compared to girls who marry later. The facts show a strong correlation between child marriage and lower levels of educational attainment.

This low education level leads to poor economic prospects. When girls not given the opportunity to empower themselves through education, it directly affects their chance to be financially independent and their economic empowerment runs thin. Their lives depend on their husbands. And if the husband and his family are poor, then their household life perpetuates a depressing fate. Girls and their future families are consequently trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Research shows that 68.6 percent of girls married before 18 work in the informal sector when they decide to work. An increasingly competitive job market demands job seekers to have high qualifications. Girls who marry at young age and remain uneducated find it very difficult to turn the wheel of life and raise the standard of living for their families.

Considering the reality, the Indonesian government needs to take efforts to this problem that remains widespread. Even though there are successful child marriages, they are usually experienced by those from economically stable and well-educated families who make conscious decisions based on well-thought considerations.

This is, however, is not the case in Indonesia. Child marriages drain girls, their families, and the country of their potential.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester. Dikanaya Tarahita is an Indonesian freelance writer. They are regular contributors to Asia Sentinel.