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Jakarta Post

Child marriage norm on slopes of Merbabu, Merapi

  • Ganug Nugroho Adi

    The Jakarta Post

Surakarta   /   Thu, April 19, 2018   /   08:14 am
Child marriage norm on slopes of Merbabu, Merapi Breadwinner: A woman in the village of Jerakah in Selo district, Boyolali, Central Java, works on a farm while carrying her child. Most women in the district get married when they are 15 years old. (JP/Ganug Nugroho Adi)

When the clock struck 9 a.m., Sulasmi let go of her childhood. She was not yet 16, but her boyfriend-now-husband Hartomo, who is 19, had said the ijab kabul — an Islamic rite of marriage. The pair was officially married.

Sulasmi lives in Jerakah village, located in the saddle between Mounts Merbabu and Merapi, in Boyolali, Central Java. Last July, she had just entered the last grade of middle school. 

However, after the marriage, she has to drop out of school. Her husband, who hails from the neighboring village of Klakah and is a middle-school graduate, now works at a sand mine for a daily wage of Rp 100,000 (about US$7).

During the simple wedding reception, Sulasmi’s father Sugiyono looked happy. His smile blossomed to greet every guest. The half-brick house was full of guests. “The Religious Affairs Office (KUA) initially forbade the marriage, since my child is underage. The minimum is 16 years of age, and my child is still 15 years old, but the groom’s family has proposed. I couldn’t refuse,” said Sugiyono.

Rejected by the KUA, Sugiyono then filed a request with the Boyolali Religious Court. A letter of dispensation was issued, recommending that the KUA marry Sulasmi and Hartomo. 

“There’s no coercion. It was my child who wanted to get married. Moreover, it is unusual to reject a proposal. It would humiliate the other family, and burn bridges,” said Sugiyono.

"Old virgins"

Most of the villagers find nothing peculiar about Sulasmi and Hartomo’s marriage. For decades, girls in villages of Selo district have been marrying upon graduating from elementary or middle school. 

Marrying at 15 or 16 years of age is the norm.

Read also: Teens gain court approval to marry

“If there’s a 17-year-old girl who has not married, she’s an old virgin. The parents feel humiliated if their daughter is labeled old virgin — unwanted. It’s a shame,” said Mariman, a 60-year-old from Jerakah village.

Parjan, another resident, married his daughter off at the age of 15 — just after she had graduated from middle school — when his 20-year-old neighbor proposed. Three years ago, Parjan permitted her daughter to get married, since the groom was settled financially.

“He has a carrot, cauliflower and mustard greens seeding business. His business is flourishing. Since they had been courting for two years, I finally let them marry to avoid zina [adultery and pre-marital sex]. Now they are still doing fine,” said Parjan.

Idyllic: Marrying at young age is common in the village of Lencoh in Selo district, Boyolali, Central Java.Idyllic: Marrying at young age is common in the village of Lencoh in Selo district, Boyolali, Central Java. (JP/Ganug Nugroho Adi)

Warsini, now 28, said she got married when she was almost 16 years old. She was not interested in pursuing a higher degree, because she thought women should take care of the children and the house. Moreover, she argued, a degree did not guarantee a decent job.

“The bright side is that I’m protected from free sex. When I got married, my parents and my husband gave me some land for farming. The harvest is more than enough. We live modestly, no frills,” said the mother of two.

Selo district head Jarot Purnama acknowledged the belief among many residents that refusing a marriage offer would prevent the girl from meeting her jodoh (soulmate) and would then turn her into an old virgin.


Selo district KUA records show that 99 of 221 married women in the district got married before 19 years of age. The villages of Jerakah and Klakah have the highest number of child marriages among the ten villages in the district.

The Central Java BKKBN revealed that 3,876 people got married at 16 to 18 years of age in 2016. According to Semarang’s religious high court, in the same year, there were 30,128 requests for marriage dispensation.

Child marriage is prevalent at the national level.

According to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) and the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), there has been no significant decrease in the number of child marriages in the past eight years. Young women who wed below the age of 18 accounted for 27.4 percent of total marriages in 2008. The number decreased to 24.7 percent in 2011, but went up to 25.7 percent in 2017.

Under the 1974 Marriage Law, marriages can only happen between men and women of age. The minimum age to marry is 19 for men and 16 for women.

“Many people get married after finishing middle school or elementary school. Some have a nikah siri [unregistered wedding] and only register their marriage with the KUA after turning 16,” said the head of the Selo KUA, Imam Suwanto.

Suwanto said child marriage had almost become a tradition in Selo and other regions on the hills of Merbabu and Merapi. According to Suwanto, the residents are used to living on farms, so they are more confident about building a family than going to school.

“Their mindset on education must be changed, so that they are aware.”

Not ready

The group Women Solidarity for Humanity and Human Rights (SPEK-HAM) emphasizes female reproductive health. According to the group’s director in Surakarta, Ayu Rahayu, women under 20 years are not yet ready to give birth.

“According to the law, a 16-year-old girl can get married, but from the perspective of reproductive health, it is dangerous. We focus more on the health aspect [of early marriage],” said Ayu.

She blamed the government for failing to provide access to information on reproductive health. The current information only concerns medicine, not the prevention of disease or illness.

The village heads in Selo stated that they had never approved child marriage. They even vowed not to attend wedding receptions with child brides or grooms.

“I have told the people not to invite me if the brides are children. I wouldn’t come. Thank God, there has been no invitation in one year. Hopefully, that is because there is no more child marriage,” Samiran village head Marjuki said. (dev)