Viral post about marriage of two middle schoolers highlights child marriage problem in Indonesia

Indonesian newlyweds Gaston (15) and Amanda (14) posing for a photo during their wedding ceremony. Photos of their wedding went viral on social media and sparked a discussion about the acceptability of child marriage in Indonesian society. Photo: Facebook
Indonesian newlyweds Gaston (15) and Amanda (14) posing for a photo during their wedding ceremony. Photos of their wedding went viral on social media and sparked a discussion about the acceptability of child marriage in Indonesian society. Photo: Facebook

Pretty much every unmarried Indonesian in their 20s (even more so for those in their 30s, or older) has intrusively been asked “kapan kawin?” (when are you getting married) at many a social gatherings, but it seems this young couple will be able to skip all of those uncomfortable interrogations since they got married while still in middle school.

On May 17, 2017, a couple from Baturaja, South Sumatra named Muhammad Fitrah Rizky aka Gaston (15) and Amanda Safitri (who will be 15 this December) officially tied the knot. Photos of their wedding ceremony – in which both Gaston and Amanda exuded youthful naïveté (hence looking far, far too young to get married) were posted on Facebook and soon became viral in Indonesia, with many expressing outrage that they were allowed to marry so young.

But marriages like this are hardly out of the ordinary in Indonesia.

According to UNICEF, one in six Indonesian girls marry before they turn 18, which is equal to 340,000 girls a year. About 50,000 wed before they turn 15.

That is despite the official minimum age of marriage in Indonesia being 16 for girls and 19 for boys, as stated in Law no. 1/1974 on Marriage. Even those ages, which many would argue are still too low, are at odds with the religious and cultural values held by many conservatives, allowing for marriages between kids like Gaston and Amanda to continue to happen in the country.

For a Muslim couple, a proper marriage in Indonesia is one that is both recognized by the state and follows religious norms. For this to happen, the married couple must be wed with the blessing of a cleric/official from the Religious Affairs Office (KUA) as well as registering their marriage in the civil registry.

But if the marriage isn’t registered in the civil registry, then there is what is known as nikah siri, which is a type of marriage that follows religious norms but is not recognized by the state. This presents a loophole for kids like Gaston and Amanda to get married, as in Islam, there is no set minimum age for marriage. In its place are subjective gauges on whether a boy or a girl has reached “maturity”, such as having gone through puberty.

Nikah siri continues to happen throughout Indonesia because in that very same law that sets the minimum age for marriage, there is a contradictory clause that says, “A marriage is recognized if done according to the laws of their religion and beliefs.” This protects nikah siri from being seen as a violation of the law, whereas without which it could be construed as statutory rape if the marriage involves underage individuals.

A draft to introduce punishments for marriages that aren’t recognized by the state was put forward to parliament in 2010, but it was never passed into law. In fact, two of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, publicly rejected the draft, with their argument being marriage, whether officially recognized by the state or not, is a great way to reduce sexual harassment and/or sex outside marriage.

Sin plays a major factor as to why nikah siri is still permissible by law in Indonesia. This is perhaps best exemplified by an online group/movement named Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran (Indonesia Without Dating), which encourages members to either stay single or marry as soon as possible as dating, and all the sexual implications it may have, is a sin in Islam. On Facebook, the group has over 200 thousand followers.

What’s never mentioned in the group’s constantly updated feed is the mental, financial, and physical implications of child marriage – especially when it comes to childbearing. In April of this year, Indonesian female Muslim clerics issued an unprecedented fatwa (edict) declaring child marriage to be harmful as it is a large contributor to Indonesia’s high maternal mortality rate. Furthermore, they cited studies that many Indonesian child brides could not continue their studies once wed and half their marriages ended in divorce in addition to child marriage increasing the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, and domestic abuse.

Sadly, fatwas aren’t legally binding but it’s a great step to raise awareness towards the dangers of child marriage.

So Gaston and Amanda may not be asked “kapan nikah?” but they stand as good a chance as any married Indonesian couple of being intrusively asked “kapan punya anak?” (when are you going to have children?) at social gatherings. Only they know what to reply to that question, but hopefully they realize that they aren’t ready mentally, financially, and physically, because they are still children themselves.

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