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19 and married: My mother as a young bride

Devina Heriyanto
Devina Heriyanto

Community officer at The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Thu, December 21, 2017 | 04:19 pm
19 and married: My mother as a young bride

Child marriage is a human rights violation that is often discussed, but its counterpart, adolescent marriage, isn't as highlighted. Both can deny young women or girls the opportunity for education and self-development, and put them at risk of violence. (Shutterstock/File)

People are always surprised when they find out how young my mother is. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized not everyone got married at 19, like my mother did – and to a guy 12 years older than her.

We often talk about child marriage, and while it is a human rights violation that needs to be addressed, there is another phenomenon we tend to overlook: adolescent marriage. This refers to people who get married in their teenage years, because they are young and in love or, unfortunately in other cases, because they have no other choice.

Although technically an adult by law, the latter applies to my mother. Born in 1970 as the seventh child in a traditional Chinese-Indonesian family, she had lived a life that I thought happened only in the news – not to anyone I knew in real life, and certainly not to my mother.

Read also: Teenagers fight to end child marriage

My grandmother, may she rest in peace, who was a typical Chinese matriarch who spoke really loud (especially on the phone), ruled her home with an iron fist and prioritized her sons. In a Chinese family, it is the son who will carry on the family name, inheriting and continuing the family’s legacy. My grandmother was from the Tan family, married a man and bore almost a dozen children, all of whom carried the Siauw name. My mother, despite sharing the family name with her siblings, was dispensable, because she was a girl whose children would not carry the family name.

Upon finishing junior high school, she wasn’t permitted to continue to high school because she was a girl. She told me that she often had to read books in the bathroom, lest her mother caught her and burned the books. She wasn’t allowed to read, because she was a girl and should be in the kitchen instead. Ironically, my mother is a much better cook than my grandmother ever was.

Growing up, all my mother heard was "no", just because she was a girl. She saw her brothers finish school, and one even went to university – only to flunk out in his third year. This uncle went on to open a store, directly in front of my father’s, in the same market as my mother’s store.

My mother told me that it was her dream to work in an office, something that I take for granted and even dread, come Monday.

Out of school with no skills and unemployed, my mother did not have anything to do in her teenage years. She helped babysit her eldest sister’s children and found a friend on the volleyball field, with whom she played religiously to date.

Things changed when my parents met at a local Buddhist temple. They were not the religious type, but there was no other place for youngsters to hang out back then. Before the vihara was built, my mother often hung out at a church. My father liked her and decided to pursue the relationship, visiting my mother’s house as was the norm at that time. My mother was hesitant, but my grandmother forced her to go out and see my father.

They got married in late 1989: my mother dressed in a puffy white wedding gown, my father in a suit for the one and only time in his life, and "The Power of Love" playing at the reception. A year later, she had her first child, my brother. I was born in their fifth year of marriage.

My mother bluntly admitted that she married my father to escape her own mother. She married a man she barely knew, a 12-year age gap between them, because she had no other choice. She was not a child bride in the technical sense, but still she suffered from all the opportunities that she had been denied.

Read also: Unmasking the hypocrisy of casual marriage

She became her own woman only after marriage. Living in her own house, which was just a 5-minute walk from my grandmother’s, but it was still a place of her own.

I recall her hesitation in picking up the phone whenever my grandmother called, and how my grandmother had to send someone to our house just so that my mother would go and see her own mother. I used to joke that my mother was such an ungrateful child for acting that way. I did not understand how my mother must have felt, finally free from my grandmother’s suffocating clutches.

Luckily for me, my mother is entirely different from her own mother. My love for reading was cultivated from a very young age, with my father bringing home daily newspapers from his store and my mother buying me comics and magazines to keep me busy while she was out playing volleyball. I was never forced to help in the kitchen, and I only worked as a cashier at my parents’ store so I could buy snacks from the nearby kiosk. I managed to finish college and now work in an office. A huge plus is that I am never asked about marriage, because both my parents believe that there are more precious things than a wedding ring.

It helps that my father, who also comes from a traditional Chinese family, does not perpetuate the values that entrapped my mother. My brother and I are treated equally, with no one ever saying that he was more important than me simply because of my gender. My brother often asks me to cook Indomie, but hey, my father cooks me nasi goreng terasi (fried rice with shrimp paste) anytime I have a midnight craving.

I can’t speak for other women – or girls, to be exact – who get married as adolescents for various reasons, be it love, religion or circumstances. We often judge these young brides as nearsighted and reckless, too young and too in love that they waste all the opportunities that they could have had.

Looking at my mother’s story, I realize that young marriage is multifaceted and that we need to look beyond the marriage itself. Sometimes, the problem is not with the marriage, it’s the circumstances that allow marriage to become the best, or even the only, option. We need to not only provide more opportunities, but also ensure that girls have access to those opportunities.

My mother doesn’t regret marrying young; she merely dreams of another life that could have been. (kes)

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Find Devina's dry jokes on Twitter @devinayo and mundane, not-so-picturesque Instagram photos at @devinayo.

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