Child Marriage: Open Communication, Holistic Approach Needed to Change Mindsets

Jakarta. In many parts of rural Indonesia where child marriage is still considered a viable option, it remains a challenge to establish open communication between those involved, which is crucial to changing mindsets and ending the practice.

For Dwi Ayu Pratiwi, who saw many of her classmates getting married at a young age, changing parents’ mindsets is key to stopping child marriage.

However, that in itself is no easy task, especially when strong cultural norms on adult-child relations favor the former. To avoid being labeled disobedient, many children refrain from voicing their doubts or disagreement, even when it comes to crucial decisions.

“Most of the time, parents tell us that we must not be disobedient or confrontational. But I think it’s better to be engaged in a discussion, so the child can be more open and communicative with her parents,” Dwi told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview.

A study found that 32 percent of married women between the ages of 20 and 24 in her village in Sukabumi district, West Java, got married before they were 18 years old.

According to an article based on the study, published in January 2016 in Jurnal Perempuan, Indonesia’s first feminist academic journal, “this is slightly higher than the provincial data, which stood at 26 percent in 2015. It is higher compared with the national data on marriage before 18, which is 23 percent.”

The study formed part of ongoing doctoral research by the Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

The study looked at child marriage in Sukabumi and the role of girls’ agency towards parents or elders in such situations and highlighted that gender and age are “crosscutting hierarchies with girls at the most powerless side of the equation.”

“In the village, your silence is perceived as agreement … Sometimes young girls may be afraid of being labeled disobedient, or they lack good communication skills to discuss the matter with their parents,” said Navita Hani, field coordinator at the Java Village Foundation, which was established in 2007 to focus on improving the lives of vulnerable communities, especially women and young people, in West Java.

Lack of Bargaining Power

According to Navita, a strong tradition of child marriage and a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture contribute to the high prevalence of child marriage in Dwi’s village.

“The women are not in a position to bargain when they get married,” Navita said.

In addition, many villagers also consider marriage the best option to avoid extramarital sex, or zina.

Since many girls enter into religious marriages, or nikah siri, such unions are not registered with the government. A comparison between the 2016 research findings and official data shows that child marriages are often unreported.

Indonesia’s 1974 Marriage Law sets the legal marriageable age at 21, but with parental consent girls as young as 16 are allowed to marry, whereas the minimum age for boys is 19. However, there is an exemption allowing girls as young as 13 to legally marry with parental consent and judicial approval.

According to the 2016 article, which featured six of 28 qualitative case studies, some girls were only 14 years old when they got married.

The case studies showed that various factors, including religion, poverty and pressure from parents and neighbors, contribute to the continuing practice.

“Besides parents, there’s also pressure from the community. In some cases, the parents feel they have to marry off their girls or boys to avoid gossip by neighbors, or the fear of zina,” Java Village Foundation chairwoman Mies Grijns told the Jakarta Globe. Grijns is also an external doctoral researcher at the Van Vollenhoven Institute.


Navita said the pursuit of education is not encouraged in the village and that most respondents in the case studies either did not complete primary school, or ended their education at that stage.

“Many parents don’t consider education as important. They think that even without education, their kids can still go to work and their daughters can be married off,” Navita said.

Dwi, who is now 19 years old, told the Jakarta Globe that there were fewer girls in her class when she entered middle school compared with when she was in primary school. She added that there were even fewer by the time she entered high school.

“[Our] parents think, why should we go to school for so long? Especially girls. At the end of the day, won’t we just spend time in the kitchen anyway?” Dwi said.

As part of its work in the village, the Java Village Foundation recognizes that youth empowerment is crucial to resolving some of the ongoing issues and that this would also change people’s mindsets, which is key to ending the practice of child marriage.

The Java Village Foundation plans to launch a learning center in Dwi’s village later this year to empower and support the local youth – those between the ages of 12 and 24 – and encourage them to actively participate in the community.

In preparation for the program launch, the foundation has been holding monthly meetings and discussions, and it is currently creating training courses that will form part of the learning center’s regular activities.

Navita said the meetings address youth-related issues, including reproductive health, drugs and bullying.

“By involving the youth, the learning center aims to foster a sense of ownership in the community and create a support system that respects children’s rights,” she said.

She added that the village youth has been enthusiastic about the program, a sentiment echoed by Dwi.

“The learning center can guide us through training, which will be important to shape our skills and help us find work later,” Dwi said.

Social Engagement

However, there is not one single solution to ending child marriage, Grijns said.

“It really needs to be contextualized. Listening to adolescents is a crucial step, but there are many more actors that deal with child marriage,” she said.

As a small foundation, Java Village carries out its mission through cooperation with civil society, including teachers, youth leaders, the village administration and staff at the local community health center, or puskesmas.

The foundation is also planning to engage village officials and religious leaders in the community to raise collective awareness of the issue of child marriage.

“There’s a strong religious tradition in the village, and religious figures have the power to legitimize child marriage, so that’s one of the challenges we plan to tackle by engaging these figures,” Navita said.


Countering the rise of radicalism in private Islamic schools in Indonesia

A series of terrorist acts has rocked Indonesia in the past week. Starting from a clash in a detention centre at the Police Mobile Brigade headquarters in Depok, West Java, last week, attackers then bombed three churches in Surabaya, East Java, last Sunday, followed by another terrorist bombing at Surabaya Police Headquarters. Dozens were killed and wounded.

In response, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has reiterated the government’s commitment to exterminate terrorism down to its roots.

We must appreciate Jokowi’s statement. However, terrorism is a complex issue because there is no single factor that can explain why a person becomes a terrorist.

The importance of schools to prevent radicalism

One of the strategies that the government can use to stop terrorism in Indonesia is to take preventive steps using educational institutions to promote tolerance, which can eventually stop the spread of radical thoughts.

But what is happening in Indonesia is the opposite. Many schools in Indonesia have become fertile ground for radicalism.

The latest surveys from the Wahid Institute, Pusat Pengkajian Islam Masyarakat and the Centre for Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) and Setara Institute have indicated the spread of intolerance and radical values in educational institutions in Indonesia.

A student tolerance survey from Setara Institute in 2016 revealed that 35.7% of the students showed a tendency to intolerance in their minds, 2.4% were involved in acts of intolerance, and 0.3% had the potential to become terrorists. The survey was based on 760 respondents who enrolled in public high schools in Jakarta and Bandung, West Java.

Surveys from the Wahid Institute and PPIM have shown the same worrying trend.

The characteristics of schools prone to radicalism

In 2017, I was involved in research on efforts to respond to radicalism at 20 private Islamic schools in Central Java. The research involved academics from Monash University in Australia, Walisongo State Islamic University in Semarang, Central Java, and Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta with funding support from the Australia-Indonesia Centre.

We managed to identify three types of schools that are prone to radicalism. In accordance with confidentiality principles, we will not publish the schools’ names in this article.

These three types of schools are:

1. Closed schools

Instead of embracing changes, this type of school offers students a narrow perspective and tends to shut them off from foreign ideas.

We interviewed one of the headmasters from these schools. He explained the importance of Islamic civilisation to protect students against Western values.

Aside from see Islam and the West as being in conflict, closed schools also stress the importance of practising their version of Islamic teachings and reject the moderate Islam that most Muslims adhere to in Indonesia.

2. Separated schools

These schools can be identified from their teacher recruitment system and their limited participation in social activities.

The teacher recruitment process in these schools is very strict, especially the recruitment of religion teachers. In addition, these schools do not want to participate in social activities that they deem to be against their values.

This type of school is very different from other Islamic schools that are affiliated with the country’s more traditional Muslim organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) or Muhammadiyah. Whereas separated schools recruit religion teachers from their own groups only and will use their networks to recruit alumni who share the same Islamic values, NU and Muhammadiyah schools will not consider differences in their teachings as an issue. For example, one of the headmasters from a NU-affiliated school stated that his school also recruited teachers from Muhammadiyah.

NU and Muhammadiyah schools are also active in social activities, including interfaith activities. Separated schools are not.

3. Schools with pure Islamic identity

The third type can be identified by the way they create students’ Islamic identity. The schools that are prone to radicalism tend to build in a student a single Islamic identity, refusing other identities.

This understanding is different from other Islamic schools, which tend to consider that a person’s identity as a Muslim is not against his/her other identity. Moderate Islamic schools do not see a conflict between their students’ identity as Muslims and as Indonesian citizens.

When a school builds this single Muslim identity, that school will also foster radical attitudes among students as they only believe in a single Islamic interpretation that is in line with their values.

Headmasters from this type of school usually order their students to follow all religious rituals at schools, despite the students’ different religious background.

A headmaster told us that his students with a NU background must abandon their prayer ritual in the morning called qunut when they are enrolled in his schools.

This policy is different from other schools that allow flexibility for their students in their religious practices.

In addition, the rejection of other identities creates a “we versus them” attitude not only between different religions but also within the larger Islamic community itself.

What we can do

These three types of schools contribute to the growth of intolerance as well as radicalism at schools, which can lead to terrorist acts.

Therefore, we believe that the recent terrorist attacks should give momentum to the government to plan preventive measures to promote diversity, social integrity and diverse identities in various schools across the country.

The government’s campaign on tolerance should reach different educational institutions via the Culture and Education Ministry as well as Religious Affairs Ministry.

The government must also provide platforms and programs to promote tolerance. Apart from that, related government institutions in the regions must develop the capacity to identify schools that are prone to radicalism and apply persuasive approaches to prevent the spread of radicalism in those schools.


Essay: Minang wisdom and radicalism

In a recent conference attended by around 100 clerics and scholars from different countries to discuss promoting the concept of moderate Islam in Bogor, West Java, the grand imam of Al Azhar University, Syekh Ahmed Ath-Thayyeb, said differences and conflicts between Islamic groups had weakened the Muslim community.

In Indonesia, such differences and conflicts have metamorphosed into terror acts by those who had manipulated and hijacked the peaceful teachings of Islam.

For Indonesians, fighting terrorism should entertain a local approach since the “think globally, engage locally” principle is the key to figuring out radicalism finding its foothold in different regions.

In the context of the archipelago, however, a lot has to do with the region’s cultural characteristics. Customs, traditions and local wisdoms might play a pivotal role in combating terrorism in this country.

Local wisdoms, for instance, might contribute in an attempt to fight terrorism in Indonesia — case in point: the culture of Minang.

First of all, Minang culture accentuates inclusivity. The adages of dima bumi dipijak, disinan langik dijunjuang (the sky will be held high no matter the ground you stand on) and lain lubuak lain ikannyo lain ladang lain belalangnyo (each grassland is home to its own kind of locust and each pond is home to its own kind of fish) suggest that we must observe local customs since each place has its own customs and culture. Thus, we should not measure others by our own yardstick.

Such strong emphasis on inclusivity makes it easier for Minang people to interact with people of different backgrounds and cultures. That is why there is no “Padang town”, unlike China towns or Javanese villages, which are easily found across the archipelago. They believe that being exclusive is not simply detrimental to their social transformation but also opens the door to conflict.

Concerning terrorism as a part of radical teachings, there is a strong tendency for terrorists to appear on an exclusive social stage; intermingling with their own people instead if assimilating with others, undermining their non-group members and viewing their values as superior to the locals’ moral standards. They believe themselves to be saviors with unquestionable claims of truth and salvation.

Considering the terrorists’ exclusive treats, the government might team up with Minang intellectuals, ulema and traditional leaders to restore those involved in terrorist circles through an educational approach such as dialogue and field trips. Cushioned by strong Islamic values within the Minang culture, it is hopeful that those recruited by terrorist groups will be rehabilitated into friendly Muslims.

Second, democracy constitutes an essential value in Minang culture. When people pay Istano Basa Pagaruyung a visit — a palace without a king, rebuilt after the suppression of the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI) movement in 1958 in West Sumatra — they will not find a throne in it. Why? Because Minang culture adheres to the notion of duduak samo randah tagak samo tinggi (when sitting down, we are equally low; when standing up, we are equally tall). Social castes and discrimination have been long culturally blocked in favor of open-mindedness within the Minang culture.

Underpinned by the principle of duduak samo randah tagak samo tinggi, Minang people never look up to someone to the point of reverence.

In this perspective, the Minang culture could be instrumental in taming the tendency of idolizing and worshipping any particular leader preaching radical thoughts.

Together with historians, the government could launch a massive campaign against terrorism through biographical studies of Minang figures as to the connection between their democratic way of life and Minang culture.

This attempt would expose the very nature of Hatta, Sjahrir, Agus Salim, Hamka, M. Yamin, Natsir and Tan Malaka. In spite of their ideological distinctions, they are considered great individuals who managed to escape the entrapment of radical acts often used by others to justify their means. The biographical studies would later conform to the fact that their greatness is inseparably linked to their Minang background.

Third, Minang culture pays much attention to the power of traditional networking. In terms of leadership, Minang wisdom highlights the significance of networking.

In Minang terms, the success of leadership is rooted in the balance of three pillars – known as the tigo tungku sajarangan (the three stoves at the hearth). They are niniak mamak (head of the clans), alim ulama (religious scholars) and cadiak pandai (experienced and enlightened elders).

In practice, West Sumatra’s unique form of administration is useful in coping with various social problems, like gambling and adultery. Central to their success in tackling assorted social illness is a regular forum involving the three pillars.

Former Solok regent Syamsu Rahim, for example, does well to push down crime rates, social illnesses and crisis of legitimacy at the level of nagari, an administrative system equal to the kelurahan (village) in other provinces, for his breakthrough in involving niniak mamakalim ulama, and cadiak pandai across his regency.

Syamsu’s success story reminds us of the necessity of traditional networking system in response to assorted social pathologies, including terrorism. It is often the case that traditional leaders have more penetrating powers into untouchable areas.

Similar approaches may prove to be effective in eradicating the spread of radicalism, especially considering the likely accessibility of traditional leaders’ toward radical kingpins.


The writer, a lecturer at the School of Cultural Sciences at Andalas University, Padang in West Sumatra, is pursuing a doctorate at Deakin University, Australia.



Delaware on verge of being first U.S. state to ban child marriage

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Delaware is poised to become the first of the 50 states in the United States to outlaw child marriage despite years of legislative battles, said officials, who hoped this would pave the way for other states to follow.

The measure banning marriage under age 18 without exception was approved by both legislative houses, and the state governor is expected to sign it into law as early as this week, a governor’s spokesman said on Monday.

While 18 is typically the minimum age for marriage in the United States, every state has legal loopholes or exceptions allowing children to wed at a younger age.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a significant moment for girls. This is historic,” Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, a non-profit group opposed to child marriage, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Between 2000 and 2010, about 170,000 children under 18 were wed in 38 U.S. states where data was available, according to Unchained at Last.

Globally 12 million girls are married before 18 every year, according to Girls Not Brides, a partnership of organizations working to end child marriage.

Currently in Delaware, a small northeastern state along the Atlantic Ocean coast, children under 18 can marry with parental consent, and there are exceptions in cases of pregnancy.

The measure banning marriage for anyone under 18 passed Delaware’s Senate unanimously last week after passing the state House of Representatives in April.

The successful bill comes after roughly three years in which legislation failed in other U.S. states, Reiss said.

“Almost two dozen states have rejected or watered down legislation,” Reiss said. “This is a vestige of the past that we need to let go of, and legislators were having a tough time doing that.”

Lawmakers in Florida recently considered a bill to ban marriage for anyone under 18 but compromised on a law banning marriage under 17.

A bill to end child marriage in New Jersey is moving through the legislature where it is expected to be approved.

“I’m just hoping that Delaware won’t remain the only state to pass this,” Rep. Kim Williams, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I’m hoping states throughout the nation will join us.”

Campaigners are concerned that children married young tend to leave school early and are at increased risk of abuse. They have more health issues in pregnancy and childbirth and are poorer than those who marry at a later age, studies show.

Many who oppose ending the practice cite religious freedom or seek exceptions for those in military service or pregnant.

Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit