Senior advisor for Asia of Girls Not Brides
Child marriage is a national crisis in Indonesia that continues to receive little attention both domestically and globally, despite the country having the seventh-highest number of child brides in the world.
This reality has become even more stark in light of a recent report launched by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) which shows that rather than the number of child brides decreasing, which would keep the country’s progress on the issue in line with many of its neighbors, the numbers have actually plateaued.
This means that roughly 25 percent of girls are still marrying often much older men before their 18th birthday.
So why is one the fastest developing countries in Southeast Asia lagging behind its neighbors when it comes to rights of the female children?
A considerable barrier to ending child marriage in Indonesia is the deafening silence around the practice in the country, politically, globally and nationally.
Child marriage is accepted by communities as part of their social fabric, it seems to be a non-issue; its negative effects and consequences are rarely discussed. UNICEF found that this silent crisis does not amass in any one religious, provincial or ethnic group but is a national problem spanning across geographic, economic and religious divides.
Poverty and tradition continue to drive the practice, but with one in eight girls from high income countries married every year, it can no longer be considered a problem that only besieges the rural poor.
Child marriage is also legal in Indonesia: the legal age for marriage is 21 but girls can marry at 16 with parental consent, boys at 19. Parents can also appeal to religious or district courts for exemptions to marry off their daughters earlier than 16, with no minimum age limit. A recent study, found that 95 percent of these applications for dispensation were approved.
At this age, girls are not mentally or physically ready for marriage. Young girls and boys should be in school rather than pushed into marriage due to fears of premarital sexual activity, tradition and poverty. With just 8.9 percent of these married girls completing their upper secondary education, it is undeniable that marriage is limiting girls’ education prospects and economic opportunities as well as putting them at risk of pregnancyrelated health problems and domestic violence.
So, what is being done to end child marriage in Indonesia? In 2015, Indonesia became a signatory to the new Sustainable Development Goals, which includes a target to end child marriage.
New research, such as the recent report from UNICEF, also suggests a renewed concern for child marriages in Indonesia, and this will hopefully encourage further research and help support advocacy efforts both at a community level and national level.
In 2015, we also saw a petition in Indonesia, led by a national civil society group Koalisi 18+, to raise the minimum age for marriage.
However, it was rejected from the constitutional court on the grounds that it would encourage girls to engage in pre-marital sex. Something considered intolerable by Indonesia’s largely conservative Islamic elite.
Thankfully, Koalisi 18+ is continuing to advocate and raise awareness about child marriage, but they cannot fight child marriage alone. Momentum from civil society organizations to change the law and raise community level awareness about the dangerous consequences of child marriage in Indonesia is urgently needed.
This critical work also needs to be supported by well-targeted funding from donors, as well as national and international organizations.
Civil society actors must remain vocal about this injustice and campaign for changes to a law which currently sanctions child marriage, but we also need organizations to work with local communities to change social norms.
A change in the law is needed and necessary, but it is only the beginning. UNICEF has made several recommendations which are echoed by Girls Not Brides’ members experience working to end child marriage around the world.
Accessible quality education prevails as the most important piece of this puzzle: girls who finish upper secondary education are much less likely to be married at 16 or 17.
Sexual and reproductive health education is also crucial to help girls advocate for their own rights. Civil society organizations must also engage with local and religious community members to change attitudes towards child marriage and girls at the grassroots level.
This crucially includes combating poverty to relieve the economic burden that causes desperate parents to marry their daughters off.
Lastly, national, provincial, district and sub-district governments need to target areas with highest incidences of child marriage, such as West Sulawesi, and set a national precedent for the abolishment of this damaging practice.
The national crisis confronting Indonesian girls is one which can no longer be ignored. Action must be taken to put ending child marriage on the national agenda.
The silence must be broken to protect thousands of girls from vicious cycles of poverty, oppression and inequality.
Ultimately, an end to child marriage will unleash the infinite potential of girls and create a more prosperous society for all.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.