Indonesia struggles to curb child marriage

Amelia and her husband pose for photograph after their wedding in Cipayung, West Java

Cipayung – Yasinta Amelia, 16, was teary-eyed as she kissed her new husband’s hand after a simple Islamic ceremony legalising their union.

Amelia said her mother decided to marry her off because of fears she would have sex out of wedlock and get pregnant, bringing shame to the family who live in a devoutly Muslim area in Cipayung in West Java.

“We’ve been dating for some time, so it’s better for us to marry to avoid doing sinful things and being the objects of neighbours’ gossiping,” said Amelia, dressed in a white traditional wedding gown with a headscarf and make-up that belied her youthful age.

Every year, one in four Indonesian girls gets married before the age of 18, according to government statistics and UNICEF, the UN agency that focuses on children’s rights. While education and economic progress have reduced the prevalence of child marriage in Indonesia, the practice plateaued from 2008 to 2015, UNICEF said.

In 2012 alone, more than 1.3 million girls married before reaching adulthood, government figures showed. Indonesia ranks seventh globally among countries with the highest number of child brides although child marriage in the country is still less common than in parts of South Asia, Africa and South America, according to UNICEF.

“Many poor parents marry off their girls to reduce economic burdens, but they don’t realise that child marriage creates a cycle of poverty,” said Listyowati, the chairwoman of Kalyanamitra, a non-government organisation that focuses on women’s rights. “Girls who get married before 18 are a lot less likely to complete secondary education than those marrying after 18 and are also prone to domestic violence,” she said.

Child marriage is also one cause of pregnancy-related deaths in Indonesia, slowing the country’s progress to achieve its UN Millennium Development Goals on maternal mortality. A drain on social and economic growth means that child marriage cost Indonesia 1.7 per cent in gross domestic product in 2014, according to UNICEF.

While Indonesian boys must wait until 19 to get married, girls are allowed to marry at 16 with parental consent under a 1974 law on marriage. Girls under 16 can get married, provided their parents apply for an exemption to the religious court.

Activists said the marriage law is at odds with another on child protection, which defines children as those under 18.

But attempts by non-government organisations and women’s rights activists to increase the marriageable age for girls to 18 have been unsuccessful and religious conservatism in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country complicates matters.

In 2015, the Constitutional Court rejected such a petition, arguing that Islam and other religions did not set the minimum age for marriage and that puberty is usually an indication that girls are ready for marriage. It also argued that early marriage could prevent pre-marital sex and having children out of wedlock.

While poverty is a major factor, young girls are also married off by their wealthy parents in some parts of the country because of traditional beliefs.

“There’s a prevailing belief in society that women who don’t get married young will end up being spinsters and therefore embarrass the family and themselves,” said Antarini Arna, gender equality director for international charity Oxfam. “So girls are forced to get married, or are willing to get married, because of the cruel social stigma,” she said.

The government of President Joko Widodo is working to end violations of children’s rights, including child marriage, said Jaleswari Pramodharwardani, a presidential aide on human rights.

“The government is pushing for the creation of child-friendly cities and one of the criteria to be a child-friendly city is lower child marriage numbers,” she said. “We continue to hold dialogue with non-governmental organisations, including religious and customary organisations, so that they can play greater role to stop child marriage.”

Amelia said she was looking forward to a happy married life.

“But I’m sad because I have to live separate from my mother,” she said.

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