An engagement between a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy in South Sulawesi province has once again sparked discussion about child marriage in Indonesia, prompting the government to consider taking new legal steps to prevent the practice.
Recently, two middle-schoolers in the province successfully challenged the local Regional Affairs Office’s (KUA) decision not to grant their request for marriage, as the minimum legal age for marriage in Indonesia is 16 for women and 19 for men. After earning dispensation from the Bantaeng District Religious Court, the couple on Thursday officially registered their engagement with the KUA and are now taking part in a pre-marital counseling program.
“We initially rejected them because they are underage. But it turned out they filed for dispensation which was approved by the Religious Court,” said Bantaeng District KUA official Syarif Hidayat, as quoted by Tribun.
Syarif added that he was informed that one of the main reasons for their engagement is so that the soon-to-be bride won’t be lonely, as mother recently passed away while her father is often away on work trips.
“According to her aunt, the girl is scared of sleeping alone,” he said.
News about the couple’s engagement reached Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Yohana Yembise, who is sending a team of officials to try to prevent the marriage between the two children.
“We will remain stern in protecting children’s rights, we will not let children marry at that age,” she said, as quoted by Kumparan today.
Minister Yohana added that the government is considering raising the minimum legal age for marriage.
“We are drawing up plans between two ministries, the Religious Affairs Ministry and us, as well as NGOs who are pressing for the raising of the minimum age for marriage. We’ll talk about it and will likely raise it to 20 and up,” she said.
In April of last 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.
Even so, stories about children (some as young as 14) getting married continued to take place and go viral on social media since then. Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Deputy Minister Lenny Rosalin said that child marriage in Indonesia is at “emergency levels” as, 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.