Dio Suhenda, Jakarta – The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports many countries are not making progress quickly enough to eradicate child marriage practices in the coming decades, especially as recent crises such as COVID-19 threaten to reverse years of marginal improvements.
Among the countries flagged for this lack of advance is Indonesia, the fourth-biggest contributor to child marriages in the world, according to a report released on Tuesday.
In its study, UNICEF found the global prevalence of child marriages has declined from 23 percent to 19 percent over the past decade, based on data on women ages 20-24 who married before they were 18 years old.
But this improvement is not distributed equally around the world, as South Asian countries such as India, home to one-third of the world's child brides, had been the main drivers of the global reduction. The region's prevalence stood at just above 20 percent in 2022.
While at 7-percent prevalence, the East Asia and Pacific region was comparatively lower, UNICEF said the figure had remained relatively stagnant due to the lack of meaningful progress over the past 25 years.
According to UNICEF's estimates, it would take anywhere between 60 to 80 years for every country in the region, including Indonesia, to bring down child marriage prevalence to less than 1 percent at the current rate, far from the target set by the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eradicate child marriage by 2030.
In a separate report issued in January, UNICEF said Indonesia would need to increase its annual rate of child marriage reduction, currently averaging 2.8 percent over the past decade, by around seven times in order to be able to reach the SDG target.
Data from Statistics Indonesia (BPS), meanwhile, showed Indonesia's prevalence of child brides has dropped from 12 percent in 2015 to 8 percent in 2022.
The latest figure puts Indonesia two years ahead of its target in the 2020-2024 National Mid-Term Development Plan (RPJMN), whereby the government had expected Indonesia to reach the 8-percent mark by 2024.
However, BPS data also show disparities between provinces remains a big problem, as just 10 of the nation's 34 provinces at the time of the data collection phase still recorded prevalence numbers in the double digits, with West Nusa Tenggara leading at 16 percent. The province is home to the Lombok region's Sasak tribe, which is famous for its eloping culture, known as merarik.
To make matters worse, UNICEF warned recent improvements could be undone due to the fallout from COVID-19, noting years of pandemic-induced school closures and economic uncertainty, as well as the death of parents, have put children in more-vulnerable situations.
To this end, UNICEF estimated the COVID-19 generation alone would result in an additional 10 million girls becoming child brides by 2030 worldwide.
"Health and economic crises, escalating armed conflicts and the ravaging effects of climate change are forcing families to seek a false sense of refuge in child marriage," UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell said in a statement on Tuesday.
"[These conflicts] are crushing the hopes and dreams of vulnerable children, especially girls who should be students, not brides," she added.
Observers in Indonesia are calling on the government to take firmer measures against child marriages, particularly as many cases across the nation still go unreported.
"In 2019, Indonesia took a big step forward by amending the 1974 Marriage Law by setting the minimum age for marriage for both girls and boys at 19 years old. Since then, there has been a decline in the prevalence... but the figure is not going down significantly enough," said Siti Ainun Nisa, a researcher for the Child Protection and Wellbeing Center (Puskapa), on Thursday.
Part of the problem, she said, was that even though the state had a number of policies in place, such as the 2020-2024 National Strategy for Child Marriage Prevention (Stranas PPA), this was still not enough to solve the underlying problems that prompt children to marry, such as limited access to education, poverty and unintended pregnancies.
The latter issue became a topic of public debate earlier this year, after local outlets reported in 2022, West Java's Indramayu regency and East Java's Ponorogo regency granted a combined total of more than 700 dispensations to marry to underage girls, mostly for unintended pregnancies.
A dispensation to marry is an exemption granted by the state only under certain pressing circumstances to allow minors to marry, in accordance with the 2019 amendment to the Marriage Law.
To this end, Ainun urged the government not only to strengthen preventive efforts, but also prepare programs aimed at combating the negative effects on child brides that are often associated with marrying too young.
"The government needs to ensure they can still access schooling, healthcare services for mother and daughter... as well as employment training," she said.
The Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry was not immediately available for comment, but Minister Bintang Puspayoga said in January child marriage was detrimental to the rights of minors, having contributed to high dropout rates, maternal mortality, mental illness and malnutrition.