Breaking the Child Marriage Tradition in Indonesia

pernikahan bawah umur

As posted (in Bahasa Indonesia) to Kabar Kaltim (17 December 2013)

“Early marriage. It’s not the love that is forbidden. But the time is just not right to feel all.”

The phrase above is a snippet from the lyrics to “Pernikahan Dini” (Early Marriage), a song by the famous Indonesian singer, Agnes Monica. The song, which hit its popularity in 2001, brought the phenomenon of early marriage in Indonesia to mainstream media attention. But instead of arising from romantic love, the practice of early marriage in Indonesia is often influenced by local traditions. A program aired on Metro TV presented this phenomenon in the current practice.

Sutik, a girl from Tegaldowo, Rembang, Central Java, was first betrothed by her parents at the age of 11. Sutik herself does not understand the meaning of marriage. But the strong tradition in the village made ​​her unable to resist. Sutik is one of the many girls in Tegaldowo, an area that provides the source of raw material for PT Semen Gresik, who are married due to this binding tradition.

Child marriage is not taboo in Tegaldowo. There exists a belief that if parents have a daughter and get a marriage proposal from a boy’s family, they must accept the proposal. If they refuse, then nobody would dare to propose the girl in the future. Parents don’t care if their child wants to get married nor if they understand the meaning of marriage. The child just has to get married because there’s already a proposal. Parents will continue to hold the marriage even if they don’t agree with the proposal because rejecting the proposal will spark a feud between the two families. Even if the children want to get divorced after marriage, it won’t be a problem for them, as long as the marriage takes place. Parents in Tegaldowo are more accepting if their daughter is called a widow rather than an old virgin. There is also an orientation of social need of the parents in which the married child will bring prestige value to the family.

The phenomenon of early marriage can also be seen in various rural areas in Indonesia, such as in Java (Gunung Kidul, Grobogan, Indramayu), Nusa Tenggara and Bali (Sikka, Tabanan), Sumatra, and Kalimantan. Indonesian people who have had ever lived in rural areas in Indonesia must be familiar with this phenomenon.

Indonesia is one of 48 countries worldwide where the prevalence of child marriages had declined by more than 10% in recent years. However, the prevalence still remains high, particularly in rural areas. In a Bappenas report in 2008, the rate of early marriage of children under 16 years of age reached nearly 35% of 2 million marriages in Indonesia during the year. Meanwhile, according to the 2012 United Nations Population Fund report, about 22% of Indonesian girls experience child marriage every year. One in every seven girls in Indonesia is married before the age of 15.

Poverty, limited educational and employment opportunities for young women, as well as cultural factors encourage child marriage.

Obviously, there are a range of negative psychological and emotional impacts on children who marry early. The psychological impact incurred in early marriage is the shock of the drastic change in the child’s life. At such a young age, children still love to play and spend time with friends. However, due to the early marriage, all the freedom and joy of life are taken away. The girls are faced with the fact that they are now a wife who is in charge of taking care of household work and also serving a husband. Major depression is often a result of early marriage. Many times the girl will withdraw from social life or become quieter and mentally disturbed.

There are also a range of harmful health outcomes for young women who give birth to children before they are fully mature. Sudibyo Alimoeso, the acting chief of the National Family Planning Coordinating Board (BKKBN), voiced concern over Indonesia’s high maternal mortality rate, which recently reached 17,520 cases per year, or two people per hour. Child marriage is one of the contributing factors to the number and rural areas were more likely to produce child brides.

These negative effects do not end when children reach adulthood; they follow them throughout their lives. The effects include lack of education and economic independence, increased risk of domestic violence, and barriers to accessing justice and legal protection.

Health Minister, Nafsiah Mboi, has called Indonesia’s family planning program a failure for its inability to control the country’s fertility rate. In 2012, the fertility rate in Indonesia was still at 2.6, which means Indonesia family planning program over the last 10 years has failed. This is related to Indonesia’s Millennium Development Goals, which aimed to reduce its fertility rate to 2.1 by 2014.

Indonesia’s Marital Act (Law No. 1, 1974) sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 19 for males and 16 for females. However, it is possible and legal to marry before 16 with an official dispensation from the Religious Court or a government officer. This practice contradicts International Law (2002 National Child Protection Act), which defines child marriage as the marriage of those under 18.

Various ways often are carried out to make the marriage happen, from forcing the village officials to facilitate the paperwork to giving a bribe in order to manipulate the child’s age on their birth certificate. As experienced by Sutik, her marriage letter recorded her age as 16 years old even though Sutik married at the age of 13.

Changing a culture that is rooted in a societal structure that encourages early marriage is not easy. But slowly, the tradition of early marriage in several rural areas in Indonesia has begun to erode. This is largely due to intervention from the government, NGOs, and educational institutions, which provide education and counselling of the negative impact of early marriage for underage children. But these strides are not enough. The government should take into serious consideration the revision of Indonesia’s Marital Act. This would close a crack in Indonesia’s law that ironically is supporting the practice of early marriage.

Image credit: Metro TV News

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