Child marriage surges amid Covid-19 and growing conservatism

Indonesia is experiencing a surge in child marriages. By June, 24,000 applications for permission to marry underage had been lodged with district and religious courts this year – more than two and a half times the total number for the whole of 2012.


This escalation goes against significant recent improvements in the legal framework, policies and public campaigns, as well as the government’s stated aim to reduce the prevalence of child marriage from 11.2% to 8.7% by 2024.


Court clerks cite teen pregnancies and last year’s amendment to the 1974 Marriage Law as reasons for the higher number of requests to marry young.


Under the 1974 Marriage Law, the minimum age of marriage was 19 for boys and 16 for girls, provided they had permission from their parents. The 2019 amendments raised the minimum marriageable age for girls to 19, with parental permission, bringing it into line with the minimum for boys (Article 7(1)). However, the revised law still allows parents to ask courts for special dispensation for their children to marry before 19 if there are “pressing reasons” (Article 7(2)).


Many factors drive child marriage in Indonesia. Poverty, education, the stigmatisation of sexuality outside marriage, religious convictions, local perceptions about marriageable age, and even ‘mutual love’ (suka-sama-suka) among teen couples all play a role in rates of child marriage.


The Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection has expressed concern that increased economic pressure from Covid-19 may be leading parents to push their children to marry young, to reduce the economic burden on their households. A trend that idealises young marriage, promoted by conservative religious groups and on social media, is another factor.


The Manpower Ministry reported that more than 3.5 million workers had been laid off by 31 July, with the number predicted to rise to 5.5 million by year-end. Indonesia’s poverty rate is expected to increase to 9.7 per cent by September, meaning that 1.3 million more people will be pushed into poverty.


The impacts of this for children are frightening. Unicef predicts that the increase in poverty in Indonesia will worsen child malnutrition, affecting children’s physical and mental development. It will increase the risk of 9.7 million children dropping out of school. Economic decline, combined with lack of formal education, may drive parents to urge their children to marry young, especially girls.


At the same time, Indonesia is experiencing a surge of religious conservatism that is driving a backlash against legal efforts to support gender equality and end child marriage. For example, the ‘Indonesia Without Dating’ (Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran) movement encourages young adults to avoid dating and focus on serving God. It has attracted more than a million followers on Instagram. Its social media content pairs fairy-tale images of romantic love with slogans that encourage young marriage as a way to avoid the temptation of pre-marital relations.


An idealised view of young marriage is also promoted by social media influencers. Sabrina Salsabila, a teenager from West Java who married at 16, has amassed more than 74,000 subscribers on YouTube and more than 133,000 followers on Instagram, where she shares airbrushed images of her glamorous, globetrotting life as a young bride. Despite facing some public criticism, her young followers continue to express their desire to follow her path.


Conservative family values may also be a factor. A study of 61 dispensations for underage marriage in 2017-2018 conducted by students and a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University’s Faculty of Law found that the majority of those marriages were instigated by parents who felt that their children had dated long enough, and were concerned about the potential for pre-marital sex. In cases of teen pregnancy, child marriage was pushed by families as an immediate solution. In other words, some families’ moral values conflict with legal protections against child marriage.


Further, Indonesian family law is a complex patchwork of national, customary (adat), religious, and Dutch colonial laws. While the revised Marriage Law sets a clear minimum age of 19 for boys and girls, and only allows child marriage with court approval, adat and religious laws have their own definitions and guidelines. Although the courts do not recognise them, these alternative legal systems are another cause of the high number of underage marriage applications across Indonesia.

What can be done? 

The amendment to the Marriage Law, and a subsequent Supreme Court regulation that provided guidance for judges in deciding marriage dispensation proceedings, were hard-won achievements in the fight to end child marriage in Indonesia. For more than 40 years, through five administrations, the Marriage Law remained unchanged, as lawmakers and politicians avoided the sensitive issue.


If it were not for the efforts of a relentless civil society movement that drafted and promoted amendments to the Marriage Law, and a group of victims of child marriage who filed a judicial review application with the Constitutional Court, these changes would never have happened.


As the government responds to Covid-19, efforts for economic recovery must include assistance to prevent more families falling into poverty, as well as efforts to ensure children’s right to formal education is fulfilled. Further work must be done to provide adequate and sensible sexual and reproductive health education in schools and communities.


Addressing conservative religious and customary values is a much more challenging task. The government cannot rely on top-down, bureaucratic programs to address the issue. Local context matters. The government should facilitate village and religious leaders, parents, teachers and young people to come up with community-based programs to respond to the local situation.


Victims’ stories of child marriage and the impact it had on their lives were compelling for the Constitutional Court when it decided the marriageable age of 16 for girls was unconstitutional. Victims should be provided with more opportunities to tell their stories to their peers, to debunk false images of blissful child marriage.


It is also essential to create a broader and more frequent discourse on child marriage, providing opportunities for conservative groups to sit together with opponents of child marriage. Influencers could also be recruited to spread messages on social media to counter the narrative of conservative groups.


Indonesia has made remarkable progress in improving the legal and policy framework to protect children from child marriage. But as recent figures have shown, policy change is not enough on its own. To prevent further backsliding, a serious effort will be required – and soon.



Jakarta steps up efforts to protect women, children

The Jakarta administration has earned praise for issuing Gubernatorial Regulation No. 48/2018 on safe houses for children and women who are victims of violence.

The safe houses, whose locations are confidential, allow victims to get maximum protection from perpetrators. They also offer counseling and legal assistance.

Since being launched in May, two safe houses administered by the city have housed 79 victims out of 1,510 residents who reported their cases to the administration.

Once the reports are examined, the authorities will decide whether to send victims to a safe house, which is guarded 24 hours a day, or not.

“Not all of the women and children, who are victims violence, will be automatically housed in the safe houses. It depends on their need,” Tuty Kusumawati, the head of the city’s Child Protection and Empowerment and Population Control Agency (PPAPP), told The Jakarta Post on Saturday, adding that 52 percent of the 1,510 victims were children and the rest were adults.

This year’s figure is an increase from last year, when 1,217 cases were reported.

Tuty, however, said violence against children and women had not increased in Jakarta as the spike could be “due to the victims becoming more courageous and speaking out”.

The city plans to add more safe houses in five municipalities across the capital next year.

Jakarta was ranked the world’s ninth-worst megacity for women in a survey released by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year, which measured the prevalence of sexual violence, harmful cultural practices and access to health care and economic opportunities.

A study commissioned by the United Nations Women Asia Pacific in three municipalities —South, East and West Jakarta — found that women were vulnerable to street crime and sexual violence in public spaces.

According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), the prevalence of sexual harassment in Jakarta was among the highest in Indonesia. Throughout 2016, the commission reported 13,602 cases of violence against women nationwide, 2,552 of which occurred in Jakarta.

Komnas Perempuan commissioner Indriyati Suparno said victims of sexual or domestic violence were often reluctant to report cases to law enforcement officials because of bureaucratic red tape or the inappropriate treatment they have to endure.

For example, investigators would often ask them whether they went out at night or what type of dress they wore at the time of the incident instead of focusing on the case, Indriyati added.

“The presence of safe houses should be appreciated. But what is more important is the legal assistance and counselling the victims get from the administration,” she said, adding that similar houses were already present in several other provinces, including Central Java and Yogyakarta.

Tuty said the PPAPP was working on integrating the reports it received from the Jakarta Police, which would enable them to be used by the police to investigate cases without having to ask the victims the same questions.

“Since September, we have also cooperated with the Ancol Recreational Park in [North Jakarta] to allow victims to visit the site as part of an attempt to help them overcome their trauma,” she added.

In May last year, the administration issued a regulation that allows women who are victims of sexual violence to be examined for free at hospitals.

The exam is a crucial element for victims to file police reports.


‘Cultural, religious norms’ used as ground for early marriage: Minister

Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Yohana Susana Yembise said it was difficult to combat early marriage in Indonesia because “cultural and religious values and norms” had been used as a basis for the practice.

“Child marriage has been such an ongoing, controversial issue. It has been practiced on the grounds of cultural and religious values and norms here in Indonesia,” Yembise said during an interview with The Jakarta Post recently.

Minister Yembise highlighted the problem during the commemoration of National Children’s Day on July 23. “I wish to extend a happy Children’s Day to the future of Indonesia. Save the children, save the future of our nation. Protecting them from early marriage is one of our efforts,” she said.

In a village in Boyolali, Central Java, for example, getting married before 18 is the norm. Parents there encourage their daughters to marry quickly to avoid zina (adultery and premarital sex). They also believe that when a girl is 17 but not yet married, she is an “old virgin”.

UNICEF and the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) published a report in 2016, which showed that the prevalence of early marriage stood at 22.82 percent in 2015, slightly down from 24.17 percent in 2013.

The number shows that one in five women aged between 20 and 24 said they had been married at least once before they reached 18 years old. The report showed that many of them had married when they were 16 or 17.

In 2015, the prevalence of women marrying before 16 was 3.54 percent, and the prevalence decreased to 1.12 percent when it comes to marrying before 15.

The prevalence is also higher in rural areas, with 27.11 percent, compared to 17.09 percent in urban areas, according to data in 2015.

In ASEAN, Indonesia ranks fifth in terms of child marriage prevalence, after Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines. However, due to its large population, Indonesia has the highest burden of child marriage in the region.

“The government, together, with civil society groups, international agencies, local and international NGOs [non-governmental agencies] have been struggling for years to fight to end child marriage as it strongly links to the Indonesian government’s strong commitment to protect children’s rights,” the minister said.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) state that child marriage is a violation of children’s rights. Goal five, point three of SDGs requires nations to eliminate all harmful practices of early and forced marriage.

Research has shown that early marriage contributes to maternal mortality rates.

Emilie Minnick, child protection and gender specialist at UNICEF Indonesia, said there were many interrelated factors that underlie the practice of child marriage in Indonesia. Analysis of data conducted by the BPS indicated that poverty, poor education and social norms are three key factors behind the high numbers of girls marrying before 18.

“However, the causes may vary from place to place as social norms, poverty levels and access to education differ,” Minnick said.

Child marriage not only harms the girls, their families and the community, but also has a significant cost on the economy and the development potential of Indonesia, with 1.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) being lost due to child marriage, she added.

Ending child marriage, she said, would help the nation achieve at least eight other development goals, including education, poverty and health goals.

Minister Yembise said the government had launched a campaign last year called “Stop Child Marriage”. The aim of the program was to demonstrate Indonesia’s commitment toward the Convention on the Rights of the Child, she said.