The island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia has abundant natural charms and ancient cultural traditions.
Yet Sumba’s many attractions conceal a sinister practice that has allowed men to uproot women from their families, erase their dreams and ambitions, and force them into marriage.
This has been going on for many years on the island of more than 750,000 people, but a recent 29-second video of a young woman desperately crying while she is carried away by five men has captured the attention of Indonesians everywhere.
One June morning this year, a man tied a horse to the fence of a family house where the 21-year-old woman, Ratih*, lived in Dameka village in Sumba, in East Nusa Tenggara province.
“According to tradition, that signifies that a daughter in the family would be taken for kawin tangkap [catch-a-bride],” says Herlina Ratu Kenya, secretary of the Association of Theologically Educated Women (Peruati) Sumba.
Ratih had been working and living in Bali for several years. She was home in Sumba for a few days to take her high-school diploma because she wanted to continue her studies at a Bali university later this year.
Her dreams were crushed when a group of men grabbed her at her friend’s house at 10am that day.
“She was screaming and shouting that she didn’t want to go, that she still wanted to study,” Herlina says. The men took her to the house of a young man called Nala*, about a kilometre away.
In the video, which went viral in Indonesia, five men carry the diminutive Ratih up the steps to Nala’s traditional stilt house. A woman from Nala’s family then splashes water on Ratih’s forehead. According to tradition, the water is intended to calm Ratih and make her more compliant.
The two families came to an agreement that afternoon and plans were made for Nala and Ratih to marry. Ratih did not have any say in the matter.
Peruati sent a representative to Nala’s house to meet Ratih. “She appeared to be well,” Herlina says.
“But when asked whether she agreed to be married to Nala, she fell silent for quite a long time, before finally saying ‘yes’, she accepts it.”
A week after Ratih’s abduction, another young woman was taken in the village. Mawar*, 23, was breastfeeding her 10-month-old baby on the porch of her brother’s house when Budi* and a dozen other men suddenly showed up, wrenched her baby away and abducted her.
“She was passed from one man to another and hoisted onto a truck parked about 20 metres from her house,” says Markus Kamping, a volunteer with the Women and Children Solidarity Group (Sopan).
Mawar’s father and brother, who were in the house, fought the men, but they were outnumbered.
The abduction of a married woman is extremely rare in Sumba, but Mawar’s husband was working on another island and her captors possibly thought she was single.
During the 30-minute journey to Budi’s village, the men sexually harassed Mawar and her Caesarean-section scar began to tear and bleed.
That evening, Mawar’s family sent representatives to Budi’s house to ask whether she was willing to marry Budi.
“Mawar adamantly refused,” Markus says. “She was also in pain [because of her torn scar] and she begged to be allowed to go home.”
Mawar’s baby boy kept crying for her, so her father decided to report her abduction to the police.
The next morning, two police officers, Mawar’s family’s members, the head of the village and Sopan volunteers went to Budi’s house to bring Mawar home.
“Mawar was very weak,” Markus says. “She cried profusely when she saw that we had come to take her home.”
Umbu Jowa, an expert on Sumba’s traditional custom and rites, says catch-a-bride is a distortion of the island’s culture.
“Kawin tangkap is a violation of Sumba’s traditions, which has repeatedly happened and finally been considered a custom,” he explains.
Sumba’s marriage custom, at least for commoners, has been the ordinary tale of a man and woman meeting, falling in love and getting married.
Among wealthy and noble families, though, the rules were different. A man was expected to marry the daughter of his mother’s brother to maintain the family’s social standing and keep their wealth within the clan.
Kawin tangkap, also known as palai ngiddi mawini or piti maranggang in the language of Sumba, was usually arranged to bring the woman to the man’s house with the knowledge and approval of the woman’s parents. The girl’s consent, however, never really mattered.
Over the years, the custom deviated from its original purpose. Certain men of great wealth and status felt entitled to catch any woman they wanted to and marry them without the knowledge or approval of their families.
“The abductor was then required to pay a heavy denda adat [customary fine], as well as belis [a dowry] to the woman’s family,” Umbu says.
The “fine” is often six Sumba horses, worth about 35 million rupiah (S$3,300) each, and five buffaloes, each costing 17 million to 25 million rupiah, making a total of roughly 300 million rupiah, or more than US$20,000 (S$28,000).
Yet instead of dissuading men from committing kawin tangkap, this rule has actually encouraged some.
“Men’s egos swell up when they catch a woman, because everyone in the village will then realise how wealthy and powerful they are,” Umbu says.
The kidnapped woman is often raped and abused by the perpetrator.
“After the woman is violated, she often feels she has nowhere else to go,” Umbu explains. “She’s often resigned to her fate and willing to marry her abductor.”
Andi* helped his younger brother abduct his cousin a few years ago.
“He didn’t have a choice because he was asked by the woman’s own father, who is our uncle, to take his daughter as his wife,” says Andi, who is now a high-ranking government official in central Sumba.
“In Sumba’s culture, uncles are considered the spring of life. Our lives won’t be blessed unless we do his bidding.”
According to Andi, he and his brother abducted the young woman at her workplace without resorting to violence.
When they returned to their home, a gong was sounded in the hall and a feast was prepared for the entire village to let them know a young woman had been brought to their house for palai ngiddi.
Andi says the woman was made to sit on the joined arms of the men when they carried her up to their traditional stilt house, “like a top-scorer in a soccer game”.
Andi’s parents and senior family members then tried to convince her that marrying Andi’s brother was the right thing to do, but she refused, saying she already had a boyfriend. A couple of days later, Andi’s parents let her go.
“We’re all rational people here,” he adds. “When we saw that we couldn’t convince her, we let her go.”
Andi admits that the woman had refused to eat or drink anything, and been trying to hurt herself while being kept at their house.
The experience did not convince Andi that the custom was unacceptable.
“More than 60 per cent of the people in my village were married by palai ngiddi,” he says. “None has ever divorced. And all their children have become very successful.”
Publicity about recent cases of kawin tangkap has led to a memorandum of understanding condemning the practice, which has been signed by the Christian Church of Sumba (GKS), the Peruati women’s group, public figures, the regent of central Sumba (the head of that administrative district) and local lawmakers.
Indonesia’s minister of women’s empowerment and child protection, I Gusti Ayu Bintang Darmawati, visited Sumba this month to discuss the custom with local regents and lawmakers.
An agreement was signed by the four regents and the vice-governor of East Nusa Tenggara, and witnessed by the minister, in part to repudiate forced marriages.
“It all looks good on paper,” says Peruati’s secretary, Herlina. “But follow-up is needed.”
Mawar, the young mother who was abducted in June, hesitates to press charges because she fears retaliation from the perpetrator’s family and friends if he is jailed.
Meanwhile, Ratih is kept under heavy guard at Nala’s house while their families prepare for their wedding.
*The names of Budi, Ratih, Mawar, Nala and Andi have been changed.