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.



New Moroccan law fails to protect women from forced marriage: activists

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A new law criminalizing violence against women that came into effect in Morocco on Wednesday does not fully protect women against forced marriage or domestic violence, activists said.

Campaigners broadly welcomed the new law, which criminalizes “harassment, aggression, sexual exploitation or ill treatment of women” in Morocco.

But they criticized loopholes that would allow girls under 18 to marry and said a failure to define forced marriage would make it difficult to enforce a ban.

“How are women supposed to be protected when there is no definition of what is forced marriage?” said Stephanie Willman Bordat, co-founder of rights group Mobilising for Rights Associates.

“For some women, choice doesn’t exist. When you have family pressure, social stigma on single women, poor economics … all of these things – so what does forced look like?” Bordat told the Thomson Reuters foundation by phone from the capital, Rabat.

Nearly two-thirds of women in Morocco have experienced physical, psychological, sexual or economic abuse, according to a national survey.

A video of a young woman being sexually assaulted by a gang of teenage boys on a bus in Casablanca last year sparked outrage in the country.

According to the advocacy group Girls Not Brides, 16 percent of girls are married before the age of 18 in Morocco, where they are allowed to wed with judicial consent.

“More must be done to ensure girls are protected from the harmful consequences of child marriage,” said Matilda Branson, Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer at Girls Not Brides.

“The law also places the onus on girls to report their own marriages, who may face reprisals from their husband and family as a result,” she said in an emailed statement.

In 2014 Morocco overhauled a law that let rapists escape punishment if they married their victims. The change followed the suicide of a 16-year-old girl forced to marry her rapist.

Activists said Tunisia, which passed its own law protecting women against violence last year, had set a strong example. Unlike Morocco, Tunisia explicitly outlaws marital rape.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a Middle East expert with the global advocacy group Equality Now, welcomed the law as a “positive step” to protect women, but said implementation was key.

“We want to see the implementation of this law – forced and child marriages are very much happening in Morocco.”

Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit


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.


Legal Dilemma of Child Marriage

KOMPAS, 6 February 2018 – The legal aspect seems to be the weakest in efforts to prevent child marriage in the country. In practice, isbat nikah (a marriage conducted according to customary religious law) and the dispensasi nikah (marriage dispensation; an application to the religious court for permission to marry an underage partner) are two loopholes that can turn the illegal act of marrying a child, legal. Furthermore, both tacitly acknowledge the “legality” of non-state regulations that should thus be deemed illegal, with legal sanctions for violators.

Historically, the existence of non-state laws, including religious and customary laws, are inseparable from the wealth of laws that have existed in Indonesia long before the colonialists brought with them the concept of laws as a consequence of a modern state.

Colonial advisors such as Snouck Hurgronje or Islamic law expert Van den Berg assured that maintaining the customary and religious laws of a colonized people would prevent uprisings.

At the same time, the stance would help the colonial government gain support and acknowledgment for applying ethical policies to a colonized people. Therefore, legal pluralism emerged through recognizing the practice of religious and customary laws, especially in family matters, including marriages, inheritances and donations.

Legal domination and tyranny

During the New Order, advocacy continued for establishing customary and religious laws on an equal standing with state laws. This was especially relevant in relation to indigenous people who wanted to maintain their traditional laws to protect their communal right to customary lands. Activists fought for the implementation of legal pluralism to prevent the unilateral domination of state laws that might be abused to take over indigenous lands as concession areas.

The political nuances that underlined this movement might have been different from those during the colonial era. If legal pluralism was implemented during the colonial regime to tame the colonized population, it was used under the New Order to protect the lands of indigenous groups and tribes that were vulnerable to state occupation in the name of economic development.

However, in relation to family law, the state attempted to consolidate all marriage laws through the Marriage Law (Law No. 1/1974), and the Compilation of Islamic Laws (KHI) under Presidential Instruction No. 1/1991. Under these two regulations, all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are required to abide by national laws. The regulations also affirm the authority of state laws above religious laws.

Different from agrarian issues in which activists fight for and defend legal pluralism for the protection of nature-dependent indigenous groups, providing space for customary and religious laws has never been a focal point of struggling for legal pluralism in family law. On the contrary, activists tend to agree on regulating family law through state laws.

In this context, Barry Hooker, an Australian professor of Islamic law, introduced the concept of big laws and small laws to differentiate the level of legal sources between state laws and religious laws (or fikih in Islam) in resolving family matters. For Hooker, what was important was that small laws must abide by big laws.

Such a mindset is manifested in practice through regulations that necessitate a legal hierarchy in which the 1945 Constitution and national laws must serve as the foundations of all derivative regulations. In such a hierarchy, religious and customary laws must not contradict state laws or other regulations that rank above them.

However, it seems that, in the discourse over legal pluralism, no one could imagine that communal, customary and religious laws would be powerless in the face of state laws that were established as a concept of the post-colonial modern state.

Recognizing legal pluralism, which originally aimed to provide recognition and protection for communal, customary and religious laws against the intimidation and oppression of state laws, could lead to legal domination or, at the very least, legal contestation. No one took into account the prerequisites necessary to create such a legal order.

Legal pluralism can only be implemented in a democratic and egalitarian society with equality in social relationships and one that relies on legal philosophy instead of mere personal beliefs. In a non-egalitarian and undemocratic society that does not believe in the principle of equality, legal pluralism can become tyranny. Small laws can be used to shackle bigger laws.

This is being prompted by legal contestations in which religious laws are prioritized over state laws, based on a belief in the sanctity of its source. This is reflected in justifying child marriage through the use of Islamic textual laws that are accepted as actual laws.

In order to resolve this issue, University of Indonesia professor Sulistyowati Irianto said that legal pluralism should be open to new and global regulations, including international conventions on human rights. Legal pluralism should also serve as a tool to correct customary laws when these are not in line with principles of justice.

Loose age boundary

Conventions on child rights and discrimination against women are stronger legal foundations in efforts to prohibit child marriage.

Islamic family law researcher Stjin van Huis of the Netherlands wrote in his research on religious courts in Cianjur and Bulukumba that, in relation to child marriage, judges can refer to social laws and norms in issuing dispensations as long as a minimum age restriction is enforced.

The problem is that Indonesia does not recognize a minimum age restriction for filing marriage dispensations, leading to judges relying mostly on their own discretion in marriage dispensation cases. Therefore, in cases of child marriage, the state seems to lack firmness in implementing age restrictions as stipulated in the Marriage Law. This shows that religious laws still have a significant influence on people – even beyond state laws. Perhaps the influence of religious laws is growing along with the expanding landscape of religious politics in Indonesia’s increasingly conservative public spaces.

As Michael Pelatz wrote in his book, Modern Islam, Religious Courts and Cultural Politics in Malaysia, family law and their implementation by religious courts are critical in helping to create a civil society that abides by national laws and individual rights. At the same time, these laws can free individuals – especially women – from the unjust primordial shackles of ethnicity, traditional customs and gender.


Lies Marcoes

Coordinator of Empowerment Programme, Rumah Kitab

Women in Religious Court

Women’s access to justice requires a broad horizon of knowledge which understands the reasons why women sue for divorce. Many people have asked, including the Minister of Religious Affairs, Lukman Syaifuddin, when we went to report the results of research by Rumah KitaB on child marriage last April: Why is the number of women who file for divorce so high?

This is the story of Nurani (not her real name). We met her by chance in the hearing room of the Religious Court (Mahkmah Syariyah) in Lhoksukun, North Aceh, in April 2014. It was 10 in the morning, and the waiting room at the Lhoksukun Religious Court was already packed. Four long rows with five seats each were already filled. Extra seats had been provided, but they were all filled as well.

Most of those waiting were women, nearly all of whom were still young. There were only three men: two were there for an inheritance case, and the other was an elderly man who was being sued for divorce by his wife, also quite elderly. The rest were women who were suing for divorce.

In fact, nearly all the people sitting in the waiting room were women in pursuit of a divorce. One woman, escorted by her daughter who was also an adult, was there for a divorce hearing. According to the daughter, her mother could no longer bear to face her father, who had severe anger issues and often physically beat her mother.

Squeezed in among the many people waiting for their hearings was Nurani. She is from the Mantang Baru village in Lapang Lhokseumawe district. Nurani had just turned 17 years old. She was eight months pregnant at the time.

Nurani was suing her husband for divorce because he did not fulfill his responsibilities. She is the first daughter, the second of three siblings. Her parents are farmers and fishers. She had come to court with her mother. Though he was not at sea at the time, Nur’s father did not accompany his daughter since he felt socially awkward. Nur’s older brother is married and lives with his wife in another town, while her sister Nurlela, 13 years old, had only graduated from elementary school and was working as a nanny in Malaysia.

Nurani had completed her education up until the second year of junior high school, but as she went into her third year, she fell seriously ill. Every night she threw a tantrum and ran a fever. Many believed she was sick due to a curse. Nurani is quite beautiful; many were attracted to her, and she told us she had had to refuse men who wanted to go out with her more than a few times.

Eventually she was cured by a local shaman. This shaman forced Nurani into marrying him. He claimed that if she did not, she would stay ill due to her curse. Not long after her treatment process, they were married with the promise that he would pay jeulame for their household furnishings plus a dowry of 10 mayam (1 mayam = 3.3 grams) of gold, of which only 3 mayam had been paid.

> On the second day after the marriage, Nurani was brought to the home of her in-laws. She felt as if she was being treated as a house-maid. For two months, Nurani lived at her in-laws’ house. Entering the Haj season, she had an excuse to go home for meugang, to celebrate Idul Adha. Before she went, Nur tried to collect the dowry she was owed by her husband, as well as the jeulame. Not only was she not paid, she was sent away with curses from her husband and her in-laws, two months pregnant.

After she had been at home for a few days, the village chief (known in Aceh as geucik) came with a message from her husband that he had divorced her. Nurani continued to demand her jeulame and the rest of her dowry. She went back to her in-laws’ house to make her demands, but instead, her ex-husband slapped her. And there was another woman at the house: his new wife.

And so, eight months pregnant, Nurani went to court along with her mother. She demanded an official divorce so that her marital status would be clear. If home is truly heaven for women, it does not make sense to others if they sue for divorce. This phenomenon of an increasing number of women in the religious courts is a clear indication of how many men are not fulfilling their responsibilities as husbands.