Who wants their kids to wed at 16?

My aunt would have continued to enjoy school and games if the 1974 marriage law was around in her days.

It was not, and she was “suddenly snatched from playing”, she said, into an arranged marriage with someone she had never met when she was about 12.

It seemed to become a happy marriage with six children. Unlike her, the daughters raised in Serang, Banten, married after pursuing higher education and continuing with their careers.

Perhaps as townspeople they were saved from the more typical inter-generational cycle, which affects girls from poor families whose mothers married young.

Thus, in the early 1970s, deciding on the minimum age of 16 for girls to enter legal marriage was progress at the time, compared to the widespread practice of marrying off girls just after they had began menstruation.

The pioneers of family planning had already raised concerns of very young wives and mothers, who had not completed school but who already had a string of children, with already a divorce or two.

Fast forward almost 40 years – it is hard to fathom why the nation’s most honourable justices of the Constitutional Court, except Justice Maria Farida Indrati, could turn down requests to review the marriage law and increase the minimum legal marriage age to 18 for girls.

Would they accept a suitor for their 16-year-old daughters, nieces or granddaughters? A lot, of course, has happened in 40 years.

We have drivers and farm hands aspiring to have their daughters go to university – and many have, such as Angga Dwi Tuti Lestari, a biology major whose parents are farm labourers, who just graduated with flying colors in Surakarta, Central Java.

Over 20 years ago we ratified the UN convention banning all forms of discrimination against females, and passed the child protection law in 2002.

We have worked hard to have more female decision makers.

Yet Indonesia still has the highest rate of women dying from pregnancy complications in Southeast Asia.

Among the main contributions to their deaths, experts have cited that women were too young when they had their first pregnancies, and many deliveries resulting in death were related to the short spacing between pregnancies, and the mothers’ poor health.

We have also seen the revival of views claimed to be based on religion, the kind which benefits the lust and will of men, particularly paedophiles.

Look at the case of a religious leader who wed a 12-year-old from a poor family in Semarang, Central Java.

Despite clearly violating the legal minimum age for girls to marry under the 1974 law, he was not immediately arrested.

And in 2009 Pujiono Cahyo Widianto, also known as Syech Puji, was acquitted from charges of child abuse and marrying a minor as the indictment was “vague”, the court said.

The next year the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) congress in Makassar, South Sulawesi, amazingly ruled that the minimum age of 16 years under the prevailing 1974 law was not a sharia-binding regulation for Muslims; they urged, however that while parents could marry off children, the marriages should not take place until the couple reached puberty.

The edict was stunning as NU, the nation’s largest Islamic organisation, is hailed all over the world for being the face of “moderate Islam” whose late leader, president Abdurrahman Wahid, was a prominent human rights champion.

Few protests were heard regarding the 2010 edict — the post-reformasi period allowing freedom of opinion has led to views — and practices — claiming to be based on religion though it violates the law.

Dissenters must be those ready to face allegations that they are against religion, especially Islam.

Is it the influence of such “religious” views that affected the Constitutional Court decision last week?

Anyone who has any idea of what delivering a baby is like would surely want to protect the well being of mother and child, and thus would understand that a mother older than 16 would have a better chance of delivering healthy babies.

You don’t have to be a mother to know what raising an infant is like – a full time job draining one’s mental and physical energy, except if the father pitches in a lot.

One Constitutional Court justice, Maria, dissented – coincidentally, or maybe not, a woman.

She among others had referred to the expert witnesses the court had heard from, such as those who spoke on the consequences of teenage motherhood.

The Court ruling naturally stands, despite her sole dissension. The struggle to improve the physical and mental well being of women is far from over.

It needs wide support, given the alarming tendencies of outdated notions gaining recognition from influential circles — such as that it is okay for 9-year-olds to marry just because they have had their period.

True, in a democracy, virtually any view may be valid. To have the wisest men of the nation forget the urgency to protect children, including those who must become healthy and intelligent mothers, however, is a devastating setback.

 

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