By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita

In Indonesia, 375 underaged girls marry every single day, averaging one out of every nine girls in the country, according to a new study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Nor is Indonesia alone. Cambodia holds the highest birth rate among females aged 15-19 at 57 per 1000, followed by Thailand. Indonesia is third at 48.

In fact, across Southeast Asia, child marriage, early unions and teen pregnancy are continuing to rise in some countries and are not falling fast enough in others. The problems are worrying enough that in early April United Nations and civil society representatives from 10 countries met to discuss the issues, strategize on how to tackle them, and learn from best practices both within the region and beyond.

The shortcomings, according to the conference, represent significant challenges to young persons’ rights and sustainable development that governments and civil society organisations are seeking to urgently address in partnership with UN agencies.

The Reasons

Traditional arranged marriage involving minors under the age of 18 has become a massive issue across Southeast Asian countries, mainly stemming from cultural norms and tradition.  The decision to get married is more often influenced by pressures from society instead the willingness of the children. Economic factors, the low level of education, being afraid of remaining unmarried, even fear of gossip have made too-early marriages prevalent.

The UNICEF report adds that many countries face substantial knowledge gaps about sex, sexuality, and gender equality, which influence the ability of young persons, especially girls, to make informed and responsible judgments for themselves, particularly when they are in an environment where traditional conservative mindsets are still strongly rooted.

Thus, UNICEF is encouraging the importance of comprehensive sex education in schools from early age. What needs to be taught is not limited to biological reproduction information only. Rather, the authors say, the lessons should also include social aspects of sexuality including the rights of young people, health information and services, and gender equality, which have either been neglected or wrongly taught.

The Consequences

There are numerous consequences. For example, in Indonesia child marriage has reportedly cost the economy at least 1.7% of GDP.  Early married is also unhealthy for both children and society. 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 usually 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.

These cases have led to many deaths. In fact, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for girls between ages 15 and 19 in the region, according to the report. Babies born to mothers under age 20 are 1.5 times more likely to die during the first 28 days of life than babies born to mothers in their 20s or 30s.

Domestic violence is also a disturbing issue, not only against wives but far too often against children. In Cambodia, for example, the worst cases of domestic violence tend to occur in arranged marriages in which the husband is more than a few years older. Older husbands, become very controlling, local residents say, telling their young wives that their ideas are worthless.

Third when young girls get married and become pregnant, their schooling is usually disrupted or ended outright, dimming their prospects of employment since knowledge is usually the key to employment. This in turn presents a drag on economics of society as a whole. According to the report, girls who marry before age 18 are at least four times less likely to complete secondary education or equivalent. Some 85 percent of girls married before 18 end their education once they marry.

These circumstances should be a wake-up call for the governments and other relevant stakeholders in ASEAN.  Raising awareness about the negative implications of early childhood marriage and parenthood is crucial. As Senait Gebregziabher, Regional Director of Plan International said, “Through training on life skills, self-defense and information on child protection and gender equality, young people have formed grassroots coalitions against child marriage”.

It is the responsibility of the governments to make sure that they make the necessary changes to ensure that these circumstances minimised.  Because if not, the conditions will worsen and will have significant impacts not only on society, but also on economies, representing a drag on the entire region.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita write regularly on Indonesian social issues.