Child marriages on the rise in Indonesia amid Covid-19 outbreak

Struggling families resort to marrying off young daughters to reduce financial burden

Bride Lia (in pink), 18, and her 21-year-old groom Randi (not their real names) asking for their elders' blessings after getting married in the village of Tampapadang in Mamuju, West Sulawesi, Indonesia, on July 25. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Indonesian teenager Sari (not her real name) got pregnant and tied the knot when she was 14 years old.

The marriage lasted all of two years.

She returned to her village in Bogor, West Java, to live with her mother. Then in March this year, the coronavirus outbreak struck the country.

Now with an infant to look after and without a job, 17-year-old Sari remarried in August to take the financial burden off her family.

"What can I do? Maybe this is my destiny. I am ashamed to have to trouble my mother," she told The Straits Times.

"If someone wants to marry me and seems suitable, why not? Maybe I'll have better luck this time. I just hope to be a good wife."

Her husband, a farmer 10 years her senior, is someone she knows well, she added.

In Indonesia, females can legally marry with parental consent at 19.

The legal age for marrying was raised from 16, following an amendment in the 1974 Marriage Law in September last year.

Males can also marry with parental consent when they turn 19, as has always been the case.

Without parental consent, the lawful marriage age for both men and women is 21.

  • 10.82%

    Percentage of women between the ages of 20 and 24 who were married before they turned 18 last year, according to the country's population census data.

Yet, child brides are not uncommon in the South-east Asian country of 270 million people, a third of whom are children.

According to Unicef, Indonesia has the eighth-highest number of child marriages in the world, with one in nine females marrying before turning 18.

According to the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection, the district and religious courts have received 34,413 applications between January and June this year from parents and guardians seeking legal permission, locally known as "marriage dispensation", that would allow their children to get married before they are 19 years old.

Most of the applications were approved.

Ms Rohika Kurniadi Sari, the ministry's deputy assistant for parenting, family and the environment, told ST on Thursday that these applications included some for minors, but the exact number has yet to be established.

Besides tradition and cultural attitudes, economic factors also play a part in underage marriages, especially in crises, from natural disasters to pandemics.

With retrenchments and salary cuts due to Covid-19, some desperate families have pushed their young daughters into marriage, Ms Rohika said.

"They think the husbands are now responsible for the welfare of their daughters and not them," she said. "This is not right and it may lead to psychological trauma, child labour, dropping out of school, health problems such as stunting and uterine bleeding, and structural poverty."

There were 23,792 "marriage dispensation" applications to wed under-16 girls and under-19 boys last year. There were 13,484 such applications in 2018 and 12,579 in 2017.

Disregarding this year's spike, a slightly downward trend in the prevalence of underage marriages is noticeable. Population census data showed that the percentage of women between the ages of 20 and 24 who were married before they turned 18 was 11.54 per cent in 2017, 11.21 per cent in 2018 and 10.82 per cent last year.

Academicians and women activists say there is anecdotal evidence linking the Covid-19 pandemic to a surge in child marriages.

Ms Lia Anggiasih, of the national secretariat for Indonesian Women's Coalition, told ST that the partial lockdown had forced schools to close and children to study from home.

"The youth do not have many activities to do after completing their online lessons," she said. "Feeling bored, they end up meeting their boyfriends or girlfriends more frequently. This, in turn, made their parents worry that they may indulge in premarital sex. So the solution is to marry them off early."

Activists also fear that poverty caused by the pandemic would further force more girls into marriage as families found themselves in economic difficulty.

Ms Lia spoke of a case a few years back, where a father married off his 12-year-old daughter to a much older man to settle his gambling debts.

"To us, this simply means human trafficking," she said.

In many cases, girls forced into marriage are scared to speak up and go against their families' wishes. Some are too young to understand what is happening, said Ms Laras Susanti, a lecturer in the law faculty at Gadjah Mada University.

Parents who were not granted legal permission by the court to marry off their children tend to wed them in a "nikah siri", an unofficial and unregistered secret marriage that is not authorised by the state or by the religious authorities.

Ms Laras said greater awareness among authority figures such as judges, customary religious leaders, and teachers, as well as educating the general public more about it, might be a better way to tackle underage marriage.

"The judges will have to listen (to find out) if the children were pressured to marry or they're doing it out of their own free will," she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2020, with the headline Child marriages on the rise in Indonesia amid Covid-19 outbreak. Subscribe