SUMENEP REGENCY, Indonesia: Every morning, Dewi Khalifah greets students at the Islamic boarding school she runs, as they make their way to class.
The school, Aqidah Usymuni, is currently home to about 800 boys and girls who are housed on separate properties.
Lessons are held from 7am until 1pm, followed by Quranic studies at 3pm.
Students conclude the day with further religious studies before turning in for the night.
But this school isn’t like other schools in East Java province’s Sumenep Regency.
In fact, it is one of a handful of schools in the regency which encourages students to pursue their studies instead of getting married before the age of 18 – something that close to 70 per cent of the people in the regency have done, according to research done in June by an non-government organisation, the Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation.
EDUCATION VS MARRIAGE
Child marriage is rampant in Indonesia.
A report launched in July this year by the government of Indonesia and UNICEF showed that over one in four girls married before reaching adulthood.
The report is the first of its kind for the country – it uses government data to set a baseline for monitoring progress on key sustainable development goals and targets for Indonesia’s 84 million children.
It showed that girls marrying before the age of 18 were at least six times less likely to complete senior secondary education compared to their unmarried peers.
It is also not uncommon to see child brides in Indonesia being discriminated against in schools.
Local media carry reports of students being turned away from public schools upon their marriage, despite no official laws requiring them to do so.
Experts in Madura’s salt-producing Sumenep Regency tell Channel NewsAsia that such is the situation in the regency as well.
There is also the issue of deep-rooted patriarchal views, which place women in a domestic setting, thus restricting child brides from continuing their education if they marry young.
SCHOOL FOR EVERYONE
According to Lies Marcoes Natsir, executive director for the Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation, facts on the ground have shown that if a girl marries before completing high school, chances are, she may never go on to complete it.
This is contrary to the way boys in the same situation are treated, who are still able to continue their studies post-marriage.
“Well it’s different; I will stop studying after I complete high school … I would’ve liked to have gone to college if I didn’t marry. But because I am married, I can’t,” said Sariyatun with a laugh.
The 17-year-old is joined by her friends as she shares her experiences, several of whom are younger than her and married, just like her.
The girls are all students at the Mambaul Ulum Institution, an institution in Sumenep that doesn’t believe children should stop studying simply because of marriage.
The institution admits not just boys who are married but girls as well.
“They can study here on the condition that they are not pregnant. What happens then if they become pregnant? Well, we exempt them until they give birth,” said Fathol Haliq, founder of the Mambaul Ulum Foundation.
After a girl delivers her baby, she can come back to the school and complete earning her diploma, which she can then use to get a job in the event that she has an opportunity to work.
“We are providing them with an alternative means of education to empower them, so that they do not become victims of the cultural system that is deeply rooted in the practice,” Fathol added.
Over at Aqidah Usymuni, the efforts are slightly different, but the goals are the same – that a girl shouldn’t have to give up education over matrimony – but not every parent is comfortable with that idea.
“In Sumenep, everyone is afraid of remaining unmarried,” said Sumarni, whose daughter is a student at the school and recently turned 17 years old.
“By 17, girls themselves want to be married. I also have plans to marry my daughter off; I want to get her engaged, but Dewi Khalifah says my daughter is to continue studying at the boarding school, she can’t marry yet.”
Dewi took over managing the Islamic boarding school from her mother, who established the school to empower women. She explained that her mother was married off at 10 years old, and at that time the culture in Sumenep forbade women from obtaining an education.
Her mother sought to make a difference, and Dewi herself actively encourages her students to continue their studies and refrain from marrying as well, until they are at the very least 18 years of age.
Students who do get married receive support.
Aqidah Usymuni is the only Islamic boarding school in the entire regency which provides scholarships for children who marry, so that they may continue their education even after their nuptials.
The scholarship has greatly benefitted students like Ahmad Dardiri and his wife Misnama.
The two married young – he at 18 and her, at 16. The policy allows the couple to not only pursue their education, but to do it together.
“Traditionally in Madura, if you have to pay a fee to study and if you have to choose one between husband and wife, the husband is prioritised,” said Ahmad.
“A wife is still synonymous with the kitchen, you know; it’s only the husband who can continue his education, so we are breaking this ‘Madura culture’.”
Tradition dictates that a woman’s place is at home, caring for her husband and children.
Completely erasing the patriarchal culture painted in tradition isn’t possible, lamented Dewi, as there are a number of factors dictating its practice including economic conditions, which also influence how families conduct themselves.
“Because once a girl is married, she isn’t her family’s responsibility anymore,” said Ms Dewi.
The educational background of parents also matter, particularly if they come from lower-educated backgrounds.
“They feel that, ‘I got married as a child so why shouldn’t my child do the same?’” Dewi said. “It saddens my heart that they still enforce this practice on their children.”
STUDYING AS A SOLUTION
Reports published last year by the National Statistics Agency supported by UNICEF showed that women who were married between the ages of 15 and 19 had a lower level of school participation compared to those who weren’t married.
Indonesia has committed to achieving its Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, its aims include eliminating all harmful practices against girls and women including child marriage.
The report launched by the government of Indonesia and UNICEF showed that 12 per cent of women – 1.2 million – nationwide aged 20-24 years were married or in union before the age of 18 in 2015.
Earlier this year, Marta Santos Pais, special representative of the UN Secretary General on Violence Against Children met with President Joko Widodo and several ministers at the State Palace in Jakarta.
Pais discussed children’s protection from violence and its role in national development, and raised the issue of child marriage.
Minister of Education and Culture, Muhadjir Effendy who was reportedly present at that meeting, explained that the government has a 12-year compulsory education programme in place.
He told reporters after the meeting that this was one way the government is trying to curb child marriage.
Effendy said the ideal age for someone to marry was above the age of 17 – this way, a boy or girl who completed the compulsory 12-year education programme would automatically be 18 years old.
Bringing the issue to public notice is one way to overcome it, but a more definitive solution would be to legally revise the rules of marriage and keep children in school for a longer period of time, according to observers.
“There should be local regulations governed by the executive and legislative branch that children should no longer marry at the age of 16 or 18; but at the very minimum, they should possess a college degree,” said Aqidah Usymuni’s Dewi.