The Jakarta Post
Underage brides and their supporters have finally succeeded in raising the legal marriageable age to 19 for both sexes, from 16 for females and 19 for males previously. It is now time for men to join the fight to protect Indonesia’s children.
New challenges in curbing child marriage are emerging. A report from a Supreme Court working committee on women and children says that requests for legal dispensation for marriages involving minors are increasing because of the new age limit. The Religious Affairs Ministry is thus stepping up its efforts to spread understanding on the reasoning behind the higher marriageable age.
In Aceh, for instance, the provincial religious affairs agency under M. Daud Pakeh had campaigned against child marriage long before September 2019, when the House of Representatives passed the new Marriage Law that sets the new legal marriageable age. “Emotional and physical maturity, including reproductive health” could help prevent divorce, Daud said, pointing out that marriages involving minors were particularly vulnerable to high divorce rates.
Campaigns to end child marriage are beginning to involve men, especially those in high places with significant community reach. Better late than never: Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, the then outgoing member of the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), recently reminded the public that many child brides “feel that they are raped every night”.
In October, Islamic clerics joined the launch of a book on the contested meaning of “guardianship”, which is often abused to justify child marriages and forced marriages, as a study by research and advocacy NGO Rumah KitaB has found.
Whether by reasons of poverty, customs or ignorance, child marriages have remained legal and normalized for far too long, with no one condemning the pedophilic (adult) grooms, especially when they are rich and powerful; never mind prosecuting them for statutory rape.
Parents likely won’t refuse when a revered pesantren (Islamic boarding school) leader asks for their underage daughter as his bride.
The dramatic increase of the legal marriageable age followed the Constitutional Court decision in December 2018 that ruled in favor of three former child brides to revise the Marriage Law.
Earlier in April 2017, the first congress of the Indonesian Women’s Ulema (KUPI) issued a historic fatwa that included a mandate that all parties must “prevent child marriage” because of the harm it does to these children and their offspring.
The KUPI — which included several survivors of child marriage — campaigns on a platform of the oft-neglected Islamic teachings on human rights. Its campaign attempts to correct bestial, patriarchal interpretations that “justify” marrying underage girls: for example, that it was permissible once the girl had started menstruating because one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisyah, was believed to have been only 9 when he married her.
This interpretation overlooks marriage in the context of the Arabic society of that time, says Nur Achmad of Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Islamic organization in Indonesia.
The member of the Muhammadiyah reform council (MTT) was among the several men who addressed a December 2019 seminar on child marriage at the Ahmad Dahlan Institute of Technology and Business (ITB Ahmad Dahlan) in South Tangerang, Banten. Nur Achmad cited results of the 2018 MTT national meeting, which ruled that since children were “a gift from God”, they needed to be protected at all costs, including from child marriage.
For instance, in defense of child marriage, parents cite fears that their daughters will become spinsters as unmarried women have a low status in society; the belief that “flirtatious” teens should be married off “to avoid sin”; the conviction that marrying off minors, especially girls, will save a family from poverty; and that girls who became pregnant should be married off to protect the family’s honor — even if the prospective groom was her rapist.
With weak law enforcement allowing child marriages, the latest figures show that Indonesia still has among the world’s highest cases of child marriages. Child marriage also contributes to Indonesia’s high maternal and infant mortality rate, as well as poor infant growth and development — despite all the rhetoric about “developing quality human resources”.
At the seminar on child marriage, young men and women read out declarations that they would do everything within their power to prevent child marriage. Though ceremonial, these declarants represented the student associations of thousands of higher education institutions under Muhammadiyah and its women’s wing, Aisyiah.
The seminar’s speakers stressed that Muhammadiyah — a pioneer of modern education among the country’s Islamic organizations for over a century — had always been committed to mandatory basic education, from six years of schooling originally to 12 years today, and that this commitment helped curb the temptation to marry off children before they were “of age”.
However, as the rector of ITB Ahmad Dahlan, Mukhaer Pakanna told The Jakarta Post, child marriage still continues, including in the campus surroundings of high rises and malls.
One student in the audience voiced doubt as to how young adults could prevent child marriage. “How do I face my relatives?” she asked, referring to a young relative who was facing family pressure to marry.
Nur Achmad said instead of marrying off minors to avoid sin, Muslims should instead refer to the chapter of An-Nissa in the Quran, which among others says that guardians should fear Allah “[...] if they had left weak offspring behind” which could include child brides and their children.
Since children are married with the permission of their parents and mostly male local religious leaders and officials, the abuse and misinterpretation of religious teachings and values will likely continue.
Despite excuses to end family poverty, studies have also found that poverty and child marriage were intergenerational. The child brides mostly lose their right to develop their full potential, with survivors saying that their world suddenly “came to an end” when they learned of their betrothal.
The Rumah KitaB study has found that child marriage is common in areas with “severe ecological damage” due to overexploitation of natural resources. Researchers say that during a localized economic crisis and land shortage, the economic role of men declines and shifts to one of upholding perceived morality.
If men, particularly those in influential positions do not join the campaign against child marriage, officials and advocates of children’s rights fear that the pervading excuses for allowing child marriages will render ineffective the new marriageable age as enshrined in law.