The number of child brides is appalling in Indonesia, second after Cambodia for the highest number of child brides in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Council of Foreign Relations estimates one out of five girls in Indonesia is married before they reach 18. The girls, who are prone to be victims of child marriage, are from rural areas and are most likely driven by poverty as well as lack of education.
The fact that the country legitimizes child marriage is one of the factors that make the practice of marrying underage girls in Indonesia thrives ever so strongly.
The Law No. 1/1974 on marriage states that 16 is the minimum age of a girl, who is eligible for marriage. This, however, is inconsistent with other existing laws. The Law No. 23/2002 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child both declare a child as a person under the age of 18. These are the major legal instruments that stipulate basic rights of a child, including protection from all forms of violence and exploitations that could harm the physical and mental health of a child.
This legal dissonance reflects the government’s disinterest in the issue, but it is also lethal to the fate of the innocent girls who are vulnerable to child marriage. Girls under 18 years of age have a high risk of facing complication either during pregnancy or birth that could potentially lead to death, because physically the body has not reached its full development.
Further challenging the efforts to stop child marriage, the Supreme Court rejected a plea to raise the minimum age requirement for a girl to marry. Their reasoning, there is no minimum marrying age for girls stated in the Islamic texts. Since marrying an underage girl is legal, according to the 1974 marriage law, the practice of child marriage is justified. As a result, this practice is encouraged even more in many parts of the country, such as in Indramayu, Sukabumi, and Bondowoso, which all have a high prevalence of child brides.
The fact that Indonesia is an honor-based society makes it even more difficult to abolish the practice of child marriage. According to Nicholas Kristof, a premier human rights journalist, in many parts of the world, there is a certain tendency for societies to put an incredibly high value on the chastity of women. In such honor-based societies, a girl does not represent herself, but her whole family. The family, especially the males, has the right to make important decisions in regards to the girl’s life.
There are two factors that would drive a family to turn their daughter into a child bride. First is the fear that she would commit Zina, which can loosely be translated as the sinful sexual acts outside marriage. Research done by Jurnal Perempuan states that parents tend to push their underage girls into marriage due to the fear of Zina. Once a girl reaches puberty and begins to interact closely with her male counterparts, the fear that both parties would commit “sinful, sexual act outside marriage” haunts the girl’s family, thus, encouraging the parents to force their daughter into marriage in order to avoid any possibility of “dishonor” from occurring.
Another reason is poverty. A girl from a poor family is given away by the parents as a child bride to lighten the burden of the family and to give a better life for the girl. In other words, child marriage becomes a way for the family to escape poverty. However, this method is clearly ineffective. Many times, a girl who enters marriage is uneducated, either due to being unable to afford school or being forced to drop out after marriage. The girl would then end up being a stay-at-home mother or land in menial jobs with low income. With such condition, she is set up for a future of raising a child of her own in a poor setting and is likely to give away her daughter as a child bride. Instead of putting a stop to poverty, child marriage creates a cycle of unending impoverishment.
The fact that Indonesia scores the second highest number of child brides in ASEAN is astounding. It is incredible how little attention the government pays to the issue of child marriage. More continuous efforts need to be done in order to raise the minimum age requirement for a girl to marry from 16 to 18. Indonesia still has a long way to go to protect innocent girls from the trap of child marriage. The main challenge is to change the perspective of an honor-based society by showing them that turning their underage daughters into child brides will only do more harm than good, and is therefore will never be a solution to the problem. Jeopardizing a girl’s wellbeing just because the religious texts “justify” it should be a wake-up call to reconsider the validity of the text itself.
The anguish of the girls are deafening, it is time to start listening.
Diana Soleha is a political science student, currently in her 8th semester at Universitas Indonesia. She is an enthusiast for women's rights and anything related to freedom.