Aleasha Bliss, Jakarta – At the sweet young age of 14, the world is your oyster. Aspirations to become an actress, scientist or doctor are all achievable goals. Going to university or entering the workforce is not just a dream, it is a normal progression into adulthood for most people in the Western world.
But in Indonesia, it is a very different story.
The United Nations Children's Fund reports that one in six girls under the age of 18 are married, 50,000 of them under the age of 15 each year. Whether it be forced, with parental consent granted through a religious court, or an illegal ceremony, the youth in many parts of the country have many concerns. Indonesia is placed seventh in the world for the highest number of underage marriages.
This data is not entirely accurate, as many are being wed, by counsel of religious interpretations of maturity, as some Muslims believe a girl is ready to wed after her first period, regardless of emotional maturity. Ages are often altered on birth certificates, or a religious wedding ceremony takes place that is only certified in later years.
Kinanti Pinta Karana, a spokeswoman for Unicef, explains that child marriage impacts various areas of a girl's wellbeing, including access to health and education, thus ending the practice requires the engagement of multiple stakeholders, including communities. In Indonesia, village and community play a critical role in tackling issues such as child marriage, to ensure that girls have access to secondary education. Unicef is supporting the Indonesian government to organize dialogue sessions in villages across the nation to identify local causes of child marriage and offer context-specific solutions.
While the goal from many activists and human rights groups around the world is to end child marriage and increase the age of legal marriage to 18, challenging the law and governments is not going to speed up this process. Child marriage is a complex issue with many layers, and not all understandings and opinions on the issue are the same.
Hoko Horii, a Ph.D. candidate and academic researcher who investigates the issue of child marriage through socio-legal methods, has spent a lot of time in Bali and West Java. She has interviewed judges and collected data in West Java on court decisions that grant parents permission to legalize their children's underage marriages, and spent six months in Bali, directly interviewing people affected and involved in this practice.
During her research, she discovered that the Western stereotype of child marriage – a young girl being forced to marry an older man – is not necessarily the norm. Horii found that many young brides were pregnant, or believed they were in love with their boyfriends and happily chose to get married.
"Child marriage [marrying under the age of 18] happens mostly because of pregnancy or fear of pregnancy," Horii says.
"As premarital sexual intercourse is not supposed to occur in Indonesia, sex education is almost non-existent, and there is no possibility of safe sex, and in Indonesia as well as in many other parts of the world, religiously, socially and legally, marriage is unavoidable when one gets pregnant," she adds.
Horii's research introduced her to organizations that empower girls and encourage them to continue their education by teaching them life skills, keeping them happy, stimulated and wanting to stay in school rather than get married.
"Deprivation of educational opportunities is often described as an important reason child marriage should not be allowed, but the possibility of continuing education while being married is almost never discussed. Based on my fieldwork, there are ways to continue education while being married or having a child," she says.
Child brides face many dangers. If a child bride falls pregnant, her small, underdeveloped body may struggle to carry a baby to term, often resulting in death or disability to the baby and mother alike.
Early marriage and pregnancy can prevent girls from continuing their education or pursuing careers, and it can expose them to domestic violence and adult situations they are not mentally equipped or mature enough to deal with.
"I was most disturbed when I interviewed a girl who had to pull her own baby out dead and throw the body in a trash bin all by herself," Horii recounts.
"She was only 14 years old at that time and she unwillingly became pregnant due to a lack of knowledge. In my opinion, this is the underlying problem that should be addressed, not the marriage below age 18 itself," she says.
Adriana Venny Aryani, a commissioner at the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), explains that dispensations by religious courts increased to 11,000 in 2017 from 8,800 in 2016. These dispensations were granted to girls below 16 – Indonesia's minimum legal age for marriage. She also believes the law must be changed to increase the minimum legal age for marriage to 18, in line with child protection laws.
"I think the government should do something to address that, so we can reach the sustainable development goals that must be implemented by 2030," Venny says.
She adds that while the government has implemented 12 years of compulsory free education for children, parents often struggle with transportation costs to allow their children to attend school. Families come under pressure to encourage their daughters to marry young, becoming the new husband's responsibility and leaving them with one less mouth to feed. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty and child marriage as these girls lack the education and skills to find work, earn salaries and become independent.
"They are losing their access to education as they are pregnant or raising a child and are often the bread winner," the commissioner says.
"If their husbands leave them, they are often victims of trafficking, this is because they are married at a young age. Parents do not see the consequences of child marriage. They see it as a solution. Marriage is not a solution. It's a new problem."
Creating Spaces to Take Action on Violence Against Women and Girls, a program run by Oxfam Canada, aims to engage with influencers to encourage interventions and establish new legislation against violence against women and children, including forced child marriage. The five-year project is running across Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, providing solutions and support programs designed to end child marriage and gender violence.
Mies Grijns, an external Ph.D. candidate at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Government and Society at Leiden University in the Netherlands, has been researching child marriage in Indonesia since 2012. She and a team of Indonesian academics work on a program that raises awareness and presents an accurate view of child marriage to the world, whilst empowering local communities to stay educated.
"I hope that forced child marriage can be stopped. You can't compare 17-year-olds and 13-year-olds getting married," she says. "Marriage should not be the end of your development or your ability to go to school and find a job. It's a very sensitive issue because there's so many religious aspects and cultural ideas about child marriage."
Grijns explains that with education, sexual and reproductive courses and legal overhauls, change can be achieved towards ending child marriage and helping the teenagers already impacted. Both boys and girls need this knowledge to prepare them for what responsibilities come with marriage.
"Education is a brilliant first step," she says. "We had a young girl lying on the sofa, nine months pregnant and her young husband was playing with his friends outside, totally unaware of what was going on.
"Legally, there are a lot of regulations that need to be improved – access to contraceptives and also that schools are not accepting married girls.
"Why not start a movement for schooling of mothers? These girls really want to know how to look after a baby, mother and child health, reproductive health knowledge and general education is really important."
Grijns is also chairwoman of the Java Village Foundation. Along with her fellow researchers, they are in the process of founding Rumah Belajar, a learning center and youth forum for adolescents in West Java. It will provide access to education on issues such as health, hygiene, gender, child protection and motherhood. They want to empower young girls and boys with knowledge of their basic rights and offer support to young mothers. This project will bring knowledge, improve life skills and encourage the youths to continue their education rather than get married.
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Mies Grijns and Hoko Horii, in conjunction with Sulistyowati Irianto and Pinky Saptandari, recently edited the book "Marrying Young in Indonesia: Voices, Laws and Practices," which is available for purchase now.