At least seven underage couples in West Nusa Tenggara’s (NTB) East Lombok regency have gotten married amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with one official citing prolonged physical absence from school as one reason why.
According to reports, the children are middle school and high school students, and were married in traditional ceremonies, which are therefore not officially recorded by any Religious Affairs Office (KUA).
Various officials told local media outlets that the marriages were based on mutual love, and not due to online schooling that has temporarily replaced in-person schooling amid the pandemic.
However, Arqom, who heads the religious school department at the East Lombok office of the Religious Affairs Ministry, said that some of the students got married because they have spent too much time away from school.
Arqom identified seven students from Aik Mal and Wanasaba districts, wherein child marriages are reportedly prevalent. Those areas usually receive guidance and education from the ministry as part of an effort to prevent child marriages, but the measures have been temporarily suspended since the start of the pandemic.
Though the public health crisis may have increased incidents of child marriage, it should be noted that NTB has long struggled with the issue. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 31 percent of girls aged 19-24 in the province were married before the age of 18.
Last September, lawmakers amended Indonesia’s marriage law and raised the minimum age for girls from 16 to 19. However, parents are still permitted to request for “dispensation,” which would give permission for underage girls and boys to marry. In some cases, Indonesians would opt for traditional ceremonies instead.
Asrul Sani, who heads East Lombok’s Women’s Empowerment, Child Protection Agency, and Family Planning (DP3KB), said that the regency has seen rising cases of child marriages every year.
“Child marriages continue to happen every year, not just during COVID-19, though there is an increase compared to the same period last year. Last year we received reports of 19 cases, but this year we have received 15 cases up to July,” Asrul said.
“Whether or not there’s COVID-19, there are plenty of reasons for child marriages, whether it’s mutual love, accidents, economic reasons, or other factors.”
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