Child marriage around the world

Child marriage – marriage before the age of 18 – is a human rights violation. Despite laws against it, the harmful practice remains widespread.

Child marriage can lead to a lifetime of suffering. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence.

Young teenage girls are more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s, and their children are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life.

Infographic: Child marriage around the world






Uphill battle against child marriage

“If you like each other, the best thing to do is get married so you don’t commit a sin,” stated a married 16-year-old girl in Lamongan, East Java.

A married 17-year-old girl from the same city talked of her shattered dreams: “I thought when I got married, life would be more like I wanted it to be, but it isn’t ever going to be.”

In North Jakarta, a young mother of 15 said, “Of course we regret things, but we can’t change anything. The most important thing is that our kids don’t turn out like us.”

These are excerpts of consultations, jointly conducted by UNICEF and the Purposeful Productions movement focusing on adolescent girls. They aim to hear directly from girls, boys, women and men in Mamuju in West Sulawesi, North Jakarta, and Lamongan, East Java — three places with a high prevalence of child marriage — about why this practice continues and is so pervasive in Indonesia. The three girls are just a few of thousands of others trapped in early union.

Child marriage is common in almost all geographical pockets throughout Indonesia. Rates vary widely across the country and by level of government (province, regency and districts).

According to the 2012 National Socioeconomic Survey, West Sulawesi has the highest prevalence of child marriage at 37.3 percent, followed by Central Kalimantan and Central Sulawesi at 36.7 percent and 34.4 percent, respectively.

Child marriage is as complex as a spider web and has been haunting the lives and futures of Indonesia’s 85 million children. Ending this practice will be an uphill battle for Indonesia unless drastic changes in social behavior are made, with stronger political commitment and the strengthening of legal frameworks in children’s interests.

“This practice continues mostly on the grounds of cultural and religious norms,” said Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Yohana S. Yembise in an interview with The Jakarta Post in conjunction with National Children’s Day, which fell on July 23.

Many Islamic clerics say girls are ready for marriage once they start menstruating, as the Quran does not mention a specific age, while other experts cite verses that indicate that both bride and bridegroom should be mature enough and capable of judgment.

Cultural arguments include parents’ embarrassment when their teenage daughters have no suitors.

Despite modern developments, including more girls having a higher level of education, around one in nine girls marry before the age of 18, making Indonesia one of the top countries in absolute numbers of child brides and the child marriage burden — with about 375 girls marrying daily. Reasons to marry young go deep beyond mutual love, religious and traditional values and socioeconomic condition.

“Child marriage is a fundamental violation of girls’ rights. The practice is largely driven by poverty, a lack of access to education and social norms rooted in the lower status of women and girls here in Indonesia,” the minister said, adding that it also contradicted Indonesia’s efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Goal 5, which includes eliminating all harmful practices of early and forced marriage by 2030.

Child marriage has attracted significant global attention in the last decade in response to growing evidence on the scale and scope of the problem, and is now specifically targeted in the SDGs. For Indonesia, being slow and ineffective in addressing this critical issue will lead to the country’s failure to achieve the SDGs in under 15 years.

Indonesia has ratified the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child through the 2002 Child Protection Law. However, inconsistencies and contradictions remain, as Yohana noted.

“Special considerations need to be taken seriously concerning the contradictions” in the Child Protection Law and Marriage Law, she said. The ministry is organizing a public discussion involving academics, policymakers, members of civil society, religious leaders, women and youth organizations on the issue.

While the 2002 Child Protection Law defines a child as someone below 18, the age of consent to marriage is 16 years for girls and 19 years for boys according to Article 7 of the Marriage Law.

The ministry, she said, has proposed revising the Marriage Law to end cases of child marriage but without success. Probably reflecting on what she said was a “controversial” issue, amendment of the 1974 law was listed in the 2015-2019 legislation program, but not included on the 2018 priority list.

Worse yet, the Marriage Law allows exceptions to the minimum age subject to consent from an appropriate authority, leaving occasion for children to marry legally at an even younger age.

A research report by 18+Coalition and UNICEF, Revealing the Truth of Marriage Dispensation: An Analysis of Child Marriage Practice in Tuban, Bogor and Mamuju Districts ( 2016 ), reveals that the procedure for granting marriage dispensation requests in Indonesia enables multiple interpretations and loopholes.

The report states the marriage dispensation “is fraught with challenges and […] is incompatible with national and international child rights frameworks”.

To end child marriage requires strong political commitment from the country’s top leader. Recently, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo pledged to end child marriage amid mounting pressure.

Since child marriage in Indonesia remains a sensitive issue and is closely linked to religious and traditional norms, interfering with the Marriage Law could bear a political risk for President Jokowi or any other presidential candidates ahead of the 2019 presidential election. However, child marriage should not become a cheap bargaining chip for short-term political interests as it affects the lives of the country’s future generation.

While the focus on ending child marriage is on increasing the minimum age of marriage to 18 years, a broader set of corresponding laws and policies is needed to protect the rights of children and to prevent them from entering child marriage.

Every one of us must support young girls and boys to end this harmful practice so that all children have the right to choose when and whom to marry later in adulthood, and so they can complete their education to reach their utmost potential.

Parents, communities, traditional and religious leaders, the school system, the government, lawmakers and the media must work together in combating child marriage.

The government and lawmakers have the power to develop relevant legislation and policies, allocate available budget resources, monitor implementation and guarantee accountability.

To turn a blind eye to this problem is to endorse the damaging practice. Child marriage is not a child’s responsibility. It is our responsibility.

Child Pride, Not Bride

TEMPO.CO, Jakarta – The incident a few months ago still lingers in Fahri Ramadhan`s mind. At the time, Fahri and his friend, both still in their high school uniforms, stopped at a roadside stall to buy snacks.

Unexpectedly, Fahri ran into an elementary school friend. What ruined his mood was that his friend told him that she was at the stall to buy some infant formula. “Apparently she was already married and was buying milk for her kid,” said the 10th grader at the Kalukku State School I in Mamuju, West Sulawesi.

It was not Fahri’s first time running into a friend who had married at a very young age. According to the 16-year-old, some of his friends marry early because of their families’ finances. Their parents feel that they cannot afford to pay for their education. Meanwhile, the parents of their would-be husbands would then propose, offering panaik. Panaik, also known as panai, is the equivalent of “bride price” given by the parents of a would-be groom to the would-be bride’s family as a sign of serious intention. The amount varies, from over Rp10 million to hundreds of million rupiah.

Observing this phenomenon made Fahri restless, which is why he joined in the campaign to prevent child marriage. He learned about the campaign when a community called Lingkar Remaja (Teen Circle) held an event to raise awareness at a mosque near his home at the end of last year. Not only he felt the desire to fight against child marriage, Fahri joined the movement because he also hoped he would be able to positively contribute to society. “My grandfather once said, wherever I would one day go to school, no matter how many certificates I would receive, none of it would matter if I wasn’t yet benefiting the people around me,” said the teen.

The Lingkar Remaja is a community founded by the Karampuang Foundation, headquartered in Mamuju. The community brings young people together, and was formed to run an anti-child- marriage program.

After joining the Lingkar Remaja community early this year, Fahri says he has obtained plenty of new information, facts that were once neglected, including the causes and impacts of child marriage as well as some strategies for preventing it.

Fahri and other Lingkar Remaja members have organized plays and poetry readings on the theme of child marriage several times, at the Karampuang Foundation secretariat office. These events are usually attended by the community, including street vendors who sell snacks. Members of the community began asking questions about the negative impacts of child marriage and its effect on the reproductive health of adolescents.

To improve their campaign reach, Fahri and other Lingkar Remaja members would occasionally visit villages in Kalukku to distribute brochures on the fight against child marriage.


Proper Sex Education as a Child’s Rights

Recently I read an article about a teenage girl who was convicted for abortion after she was raped by her teen brother. On the same day, in one of the WhatsApp group chats I belong to, a friend told her story of meeting teen boys who contracted HIV through unconsented same-sex intercourse. Meanwhile, even in my neighborhood I see teen couples who got married because of pregnancy.

All of these, to me, is evidence of what is crucially needed by our children: a proper sex education that addresses all the contemporary needs and problems that they face.

Sex education has been part of the current curriculum (K-13) used in Indonesia’s education system, but its content is still sorely lacking, particularly when it comes down to details. In 2016 the Director of Elementary and High School Education Department in the Education Ministry Hamid Muhammad told CNN Indonesia that because sex education is given at school, there is no need for further sex education outside of what is laid out in the curriculum.

I received my first sex education in middle school, ironically, in my Religion subject, in this case Catholicism. One of the topics in that subject was related to sex education. While teaching the topic, our teacher looked uncomfortable, still, I admired her determination to speak clearly about the subject. We did not learn much on that day, except how a baby is conceived and that sex before marriage is a sin.

The next sex education I received was in a biology class also in middle school. It was pretty similar to what we had learned in the Catholic religion class, except the teacher was willing to dedicate more time to answering our questions related to sex. As the internet was not so widespread yet at the time, books and magazines were our only sources. We brought women’s magazines and asked “weird” questions to our teacher, who would calmly respond to them.

He admitted that he could not answer some of our questions, but we did not mind. To this day he is still one of my favorite teachers for his effort in giving sex education. There were more similar sex education material in my biology class in high school and moral philosophy class in university.

But in all the sex education that I received, sex was treated as a separate science, a subject in which we learn about human’s reproductive system. If not science, then sex was connected to religion. Rarely did we discuss other aspects of sex, such as the fact that it is part of building healthy relationship, that it can be a way of relaxing, and that unsafe sex can destroy your life. There was also very little – even no – discussion on the process before sex happens. We jumped into sperm meets egg and, voila, there comes a baby.

We never talked about feelings, nor were we given warning signs of sexual predators. We were never taught how to differentiate human’s touches to know signs of sexual violence, though we, girls, were repeatedly reminded to take care of ourselves and not to “invite” people to do something bad to us.

I have been harassed in three different occasions in public transportation. I remember how helpless, angry and embarrassed I felt at the time. Looking back, I would’ve been more empowered had I received a proper sex education that taught me what consent is and how to defend myself when being harassed.

To celebrate the National Children’s Day that falls on July 23 every year, I think it’s time we start thinking about giving proper sex education to our young generation to reduce or even eliminate cases of sexual violence against them. The world is moving faster than we have ever imagined and our children deserve to receive a substantial answer other than “because it is a sin.”


Syrian Child Brides Increasingly Contemplate Suicide

Salwa, a 14 year old girl, remembers chugging bleach for as long as she could. She ignored the burn as it went down her throat, and she tuned out the sound of gunshots outside her window.

But Salwa, a Syrian refugee, wasn’t trying to escape the Syrian war — she was trying to escape her forced marriage.

In Lebanon, nearly 40% of young Syrian refugee girls are being married off by impoverished families who erroneously believe that they are protecting their daughters against sexual assault. Often they are wedded off to much older men who rape and beat them if they refuse to sleep with them.

Such was Salwa’s case. Her drunk husband wanted to have sex, but Salwa said she would be right back. She left the room and tried to poison herself.


 “I returned to the bedroom and thought, this will be the last time,” said Salwa. “When I woke up the next morning, I said, ‘F*ck you, God.’”


The Times of Israel reports that this isn’t an isolated case:

Halima’s death certificate says she fell down the stairs. But according to SB Overseas — an NGO working with Syrian refugees across Lebanon, including Halima’s camp — the 13-year-old actually killed herself.

It started one night in October, when she ran away from her abusive husband at a refugee camp outside Beirut. She fled back to her family and asked if they’d help her divorce him. No way, was their answer, she had to stay with him. So, that night, Halima overdosed on pills.

SB Overseas has noticed how common suicide has become among child brides — and how often families lie about it.

“They cannot admit the decision they made led to this result,” said Veronica Lari, a former spokesperson for SB Overseas. “What happens often is girls disappear completely. We know it’s a consequence of the marriage, but we don’t have any data or news from her. And the family says they don’t know anything.”

Hasan Arfeh, a Syrian journalist, has even noticed the same trend in Syria.

“Parents know their daughter committed suicide, but in small communities in Syria, they hide the issue,” Arfeh said. “They feel ashamed of the community around them. They do not offer the body to the forensic doctor, claiming it is the body of a girl and they have the right not to show it.”

In Lebanon, Syrian girls face an uphill battle against forced marriage. There is no minimum age for marriage in the country as the government allows religious parties to decide. On top of this, martial rape is not criminalized.

Lebanon has also created a rule that Syrians can only work in temporary, low-paying sectors including agriculture, construction and cleaning. With families unable to provide for their children, many parents see marriage as a ticket out of poverty.

Monthly cash support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is one saving grace, but its severely underfunded and only able to reach 13% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Until Syrian families find a way out of poverty, the trend of abused child brides turning to suicide will likely continue.

Child brides like Layla, a 16 year Syrian refugee threw herself into a river knowing she couldn’t swim. Her sister managed to save her.

“I thought, ‘I want to die. It’s better than living this miserable life,’” said Layla.