Stopping child marriage in Indonesia

Stopping child marriage in Indonesia
PHOTO: Twitter

It is ironic that just when violence against children is in Indonesia's spotlight, as the tragic case of Engeline Margriet Megawe unfolds, the Constitutional Court rejects the plea to raise the legal marrying age for women from 16 to 18.

Law No. 23/2002 on child protection defines children as "all people under the age of 18".

Therefore, anyone marrying at 16 or 17 is engaging in child marriage, which is a violation of human rights, according to Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But this seems to be of no importance to this verdict and rightly shocks many.

Netizens are also in dismay, sparking the hashtag #StopPerkawinanAnak and voicing the grave threat to young girls' lives, health and future prospects.

While the legally prescribed marriageable age for most countries is 18 (see the United Nations Demographic Yearbook of 2012), poverty and cultural traditions take priority over legislative laws.

In the next decade, 14.2 million girls under 18 will be married every year, this translates into 39,000 girls married each day, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimate in 2012.

Indonesia sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 19 for males and 16 for females, with a possible official dispensation from the Religious Court or a government officer, a practice that contradicts international consensus.

It is not surprising that 22 per cent of girls aged 20 to 24 in Indonesia were married before 18.

Married girls are then often under pressure to become pregnant immediately or soon after marriage, with little knowledge of reproductive health and parenting.

It is of no surprise then that Indonesia is also grappling with high levels of maternal mortality and the mortality of infants under five.

Early pregnancy also threatens a girl's chance to continue schooling, as girls are forced to drop out of school to tend to their baby.

Beyond the immediate implications, child marriage is also a form of social isolation that robs girls of their childhood and the opportunity to be sufficiently educated, entrenching them and their future families in poverty, limiting their life choices and generating high development costs for communities.

The losing battle at the Constitutional Court may be a major disappointment, but there is always the option to reroute our strategy.

It takes swift action, both for policies and programmes, to accelerate the prevention of child marriage and to provide adequate support to girls who are already married.

For starters, child marriage is the outcome of fewer choices. Providing sound educational opportunities offer girls positive alternatives.

The Indonesian Smart Card may aim to keep girls in school, but how is it being implemented?

School policies often discriminate against married and pregnant girls.

Teachers should be sensitised to this issue and parents should be encouraged to continue sending their daughters to school.

When women do not return to formal schooling, viable alternatives to education and vocational training should be available, tailored to a woman's particular circumstances.

The Religious Affairs Ministry, the institution that is responsible for legitimating a marriage, can be more discerning in deciding the appropriateness of a marriage.

This can be done by conducting a proper background check on the applicants.

It can also be done by enforcing premarital counseling, providing a safe space for girls to discuss their future marriage in terms of sexual and reproductive health, nutrition and their rights under the law.

Such systematic support will help them avoid early and frequent pregnancy.

However, the most promising approach seems to be community mobilisation activities.

Working with parents and community stakeholders is vital in changing the attitude and social norms that perpetuate harmful practices.

Shifting norms, so that delayed marriage is more socially acceptable than child marriage, is critical.

Mass media messages that spread the word about the risks of child marriage and the rights of girls should also be interventions that spark changes in attitudes.

The Constitutional Court may have dropped the ball on this one, but we need to salvage what we can. As citizens, the ball is now in our court.

And we can try to create change in the surrounding environment and show our policymakers that Indonesian girls' rights matter.

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