Several stories about children as young as 14 getting married have went viral on social media in Indonesia in recent months, highlighting what many experts warn is a worrying trend of child marriages becoming more mainstream and normalized by society.
The country’s deputy minister for child development at the Ministry of Female Empowerment and Child Protection, Lenny Rosalin, made one of the strongest government statements against underage unions yet yesterday by declaring that the rising number of child marriage had reached “emergency” status.
Lenny said that, based on UNICEF data, Indonesia ranks seventh in the world and the second highest in Southeast Asia in terms of the overall percentage of marriages in which at least one of the spouses is under 18 years old. According to government census data, 17% of all Indonesian girls married in 2016 were under 18.
“This means that one in seven women under 18 years old in Indonesia is married. This is an emergency,” Lenny said during at an event titled “The Declaration of the Stop Child Marriage Movement” in Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara yesterday as quoted by Republika.
The deputy minister said that West Nusa Tenggara was one of the provinces with the highest level of child marriage at 25%.
Lenny reiterated many of the problems caused by child marriage cited by development experts, such as low education rates due to girls dropping out of school early, higher risk of maternal and infant mortality, higher percentages of child laborers and an overall reduction in the country’s Human Development Index (HDI).
Despite the high percentage of child marriages in the area, Lenny said West Nusa Tenggara had taken some important steps to help reduce the rate, praising Governor Muhammad Zainul Majdi for issuing a circular advising local officials that the ideal marriage age for men and women is after they turn 21 years old.
But Lenny said much more work had to be done, which is why the Stop Child Marriage Movement, which seeks to create a united front amongs community, religious and government leaders to end the practice, is so important.
The percentage of child marriages in Indonesia may be significantly higher than even the government census data suggests since many marriages involving underage children are done unofficially through nikah siri, which is a type of marriage that follows religious norms but is not recognized by the state.
The official legal minimum age of marriage in Indonesia is actually 16 for girls and 19 for boys, as stated in Law no. 1/1974 on Marriage. But in that very same law that, there is a contradictory clause that says, “A marriage is recognized if done according to the laws of their religion and beliefs,” which protects nikah siri from being seen as a violation of the law, creating a loophole for child marriages to be legally sanctified.
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.
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.