Over the past couple of years, the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi has been in the news with alarming frequency for viral stories of children getting married, either among themselves or with much older adults. Yet another union of the latter kind has taken place recently, once again highlighting a legal loophole that allows many children to be married in the province.
According to reports, a 41-year-old widower named Rustam Ashary last week married a 13-year-old girl, who has been identified by her initials SW, both of whom are from the Sidrap regency of South Sulawesi. Rustam met SW on Facebook, and the pair reportedly communicated via the social media platform for three months before deciding to marry.
"We the families gave our blessings to their relationship," SW's mother, Nurhayati, told Detik after her child's marriage, insisting that her daughter was never pressured into marrying Rustam and that they are now happy together.
"She's still in Grade 1 at an MTs (religious middle school, equivalent to grade 7)," Nurhayati added when asked about her daughter's schooling.
Photos from Rustam and SW's wedding day have circulated online, some showing them holding up their marriage certificate, confirming that the union is legally recognized.
The South Sulawesi provincial government say they had no legal jurisdiction to prevent Rustam and SW's marriage, but now that it has happened they are focusing on ensuring that SW still receives her rights as a child.
"We want to ensure she gets her rights such as to a full education," South Sulawesi Child Protection Services Head Nur Anti told Detik.
Nur added that the government has urged SW to delay her pregnancy until after she finishes formal schooling. As noble a sentiment as that is from an administration that's practically got their hands tied in this matter, the reality is that it would be difficult for them to intervene in Rustam and SW's private lives, whereas, if they weren't legally married, the 13-year-old would be considered a victim of statutory rape.
The current legal age of marriage in Indonesia is 19 years old for men and 16 years old for women. However, the country's 1974 Law on Marriage also includes a major loophole to this requirement which allows marriages to still be considered legal if they are done "in accordance" with religious belief, known as nikah siri. As such, underage marriages that have been sanctified by religious courts or officials must still be officially recognized by the government – if not, many are satisfied with merely fulfilling religious or traditional requirements for marriage.
However, in South Sulawesi, a trend has emerged over the past couple of years in which families will seek and acquire legal dispensation from the local religious court in order to get their children legally married. One case from April of last year that was widely reported on involved a 15-year-old and a 14-year-old who received court approval to legally marry after their initial marriage request was denied by the local religious affairs office. In reaction to the shocking case, President Joko Widodo agreed to sign a regulation raising the minimum age for marriage and effectively end child marriage, though there have been no reports that it has been signed since.