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.



Poverty Rate Drops to Single Digit, Inequality Declines

Jakarta. Indonesia’s poverty rate declined to a single digit  in March — for the first time in the country’s history — thanks to the government’s social assistance programs, the Central Statistics Agency, or BPS, reveled on Monday (16/07).

A decline in poverty has been recorded for two decades, since the 1997 monetary crisis, when the poverty rate reached 23.43 percent.

BPS data shows that 25.95 million people, or 9.82 percent of the population, live below the poverty line of less than Rp 401,220 ($29) a month — the minimum amount allowing a diet of 2,100 calories a day.

Last year, 27.72 million people (10.64 percent of the population) were under the poverty line.

“In March 2018, for the first time Indonesia achieved a single digit poverty rate … It is due to an increase in the rice distribution program [Rastra] and non-cash food assistance in the first quarter of 2018, which is right on schedule,” BPS head Suhariyanto told reporters.

According to him, the implementation of the program was nearly 100 percent, with 99.65 percent in January, 99.66 percent in February and 99.62 percent in March.

The government’s social assistance, which was 87.6 percent higher in the first quarter of 2018 than in last year’s first quarter, also played a big role in reducing poverty. In the first quarter of 2017, social assistance grew only 3.39 percent.

Under its non-cash food assistance program, the Ministry of Social Affairs wants to distribute rice to 5.2 million families by the end of July. Out of 15.5 million families in need of food aid, 4.2 million have already received it.

The government this year increased the ministry’s aid budget to Rp 34 trillion, from only Rp 17.3 trillion last year.

Indonesia’s poor live mostly in the countryside — 15.81 million people — especially in Java (13.34 million people).

The highest poverty rate, however, is recorded in eastern Indonesia, particularly in Maluku and Papua (21.20 percent), followed by Bali and Nusa Tenggara (14.02 percent), Sulawesi (10.64 percent) and Sumatra (10.39 percent).

Infrastructure development in the region is expected to help reduce poverty, Suhariyanto said.

Inequality Also Declines

BPS data shows that the level of income inequality in Indonesia, measured by the Gini coefficient, fell slightly to 0.389 in March from 0.393 in the same period last year.

In urban areas the coefficient decreased to 0.401 from 0.404, while in rural areas it rose to 0.324 from 0.320.

The most equal income distribution is recorded in Bangka Belitung, North Kalimantan and North Sumatra, the least equal in Yogyakarta, Southeast Sulawesi and West Java.

According to the government’s medium-term development plan, the poverty rate next year is expected to decrease to between 7 percent and to 8 percent, while the Gini coefficient to 0.36.


A Journey Against Defeat: Narratives of Women’s Rejection of Poverty

Going beyond the usual studies on poverty and gender, this research study records the powerful resilience of women in resisting impoverishmnet, in all its forms. Women’s resistance is long term and traverses sectors and venues, but without the necessary support and organisation, it can be sporadic and unsystematic.

The law offers hope to women. The law needs to be encouraged to serve as a support, since it is relatively neutral and universal. For gender equality the law needs to be constantly monitored and checked. Positive law needs to be aligned with the framework and norms of human rights particularly so for issues of violations of women’s rights. These cannot remain hidden away in domestic space or concealed by layers of culture.

The journey of Lies Marcoes looking for women narrating their fight against poverty

Ini adalah tulisan Prof Karel Steenbrink, mantan dosen Lies Marcoes di IAIN Jakarta sebagaimana dimuat dalam web Prof Karel, Relindonesia, 15 Januari 2015.

Lies Marcoes was one of my first students in Jakarta, 1981-1983. She was at that time a close friend of Yvonne Sutaredjo, a Chinese-Javanese student from Surinam. The two were quite exceptional. They were the only female students who went swimming in Sawangan, Not only for sport, but also as a protest against rules for the female students in the boarding house at the Islamic Academy, IAIN in Ciputat.

Lies was very keen on field research and she took for her final thesis the practices of a Libyan brotherhood in West Java. She became the first assistant to Martin van Bruinessen in the project on the ‘culture of poverty’ in the Sukapakir district of Bandung, one square km with about 100,000 citizens living or rather surviving. Lies and Martin wrote a special issue for the weekly Tempo that was no a report of poverty in statistics, but in lifestyle and personal portraits.

That was in 1984. Nearly thirty years later, and in a kind of sabbatical (although officially as ‘early retirement’ from the work at various NGO), she has given us another fight against poverty or at least how to survive in extreme poverty in a book written with the Australian Anne Lockley and beautiful pictures by Armin Hari.


I received a copy of the book from Lies during our ‘tribute conference’ of  18-19 November 2014. In fact, it was not really a gift for me, but rather for my wife. We read it together, watched the photographs and told again stories about the many places she visited for this journey. Most places are known to us: Ende and Maumere in Flores, Makassar and Ambon, Pontianak and of course places in West Java. Lies has made many friends in Aceh and my wife Paule never joined me to a trip there.

This is not a book with statistics (although in the last of the five sections it is underlined that hard figures can be useful in the fight for justice. Its major goal is to give concrete examples that picture in a representative way how women and their children manage to survive, grow up, give help to children and older people. There are abundantly stories of women who are KK, Kepala Keluarga of ‘Head of a Family’ because they earn also the living for their husband, whether he is simply a loser, a too pious preacher earning nothing, or simply sick and disabled.

There are also quite a few pages about borrowing money (chapter 5, 112-122). It will be a good and critical appendix to the (too) positive words I wrote in Catholics in Indonesia vol 3 about credit union as the most important welfare activity of the Catholic Church, and other religious institutions, in Indonesia.


This author with Lies Marcoes in our hotel during the Tribute conference of 18-19 November last year.

The book reminded me in several respects of the funny, sometimes also sad book by Elisabeth Pisani, Indonesia etc. Both women have a good connection with people really below the poverty line. They are not too easy with remedies and know that external help can be very good, but does not help quickly and often not at all. Pisani is very critical about formal religion. Lies did professional study of Islam, but is also very critical about traditional (adat) and religious institutions. She has, like Pisani, a special chapter 10 on religion. I read that of course with more than usual interest. The chapter begins with some nice words about religion: ‘Religious organisations are often among the many institutions that try to overcome poverty…’ (187). But following this beginning there is criticism because religious activities like collecting funds for Dompet Dhuafa often lacks an analysis of the roots of poverty. Religions often only want to remove female from the dangers of globalisation, but do not stimulate them to become active.

Six concrete examples are given of this negative influence of religion: 1. a young woman, Sum, who lost her job because she was dressing in a ‘fundamentalist way’.  Birth control was impossible for her. 2. Fira was a qualified pharmacist who had good jobs, but then married a pious preacher who did not earn the money himself, but still wanted her to leave her job. 3. Many criticism about the application of shari’a law in Aceh; very young children, pre-school, are not allowed to dance. 4. Prof. Alyasa Abubakar, one of the architects of the introduction of Shari’a in Aceh has consented that children of women who experienced the punishment of caning also feel stigmatised; 5. in not-recognised sects like Sunda Wiwitan and Ahmadiyah children do not have a birth certificate and they cannot inherit legally from their parents; 6. one Anne in Palu (probably a Christian) had a mixed marriage with a Muslim and the difference of religion was a disaster and caused a break in this marriage. Lies also gives some positive examples of prominent Muslims, approaching women. Page 198 is a funny recording of female Muslim leaders who visited prostitutes in Yogyakarta and were shocked to see how these women gave everything for the life and education of the children.

Thank you very much, Lies, for this honest, sincere and vivid book. I will read now in a different way the monthly sold by Utrecht homeless people, also full with their personal stories. Our son Florsi did not marry in a formal way and he had to go the the municipal administration before the birth of his two children, in order to have them formally registered also as his children and to give them a birth certificate, but for him this was an easy thing.

Women – Poor in Their Own Granary

Men Mo, a Balinese woman in her seventies, will never forget the time in 2005 when the bombs shook Bali. She immediately realised how fragile her livelihood was. She could no longer obtain canang (tiny palm-leaf baskets), flowers and ducks for sesaji (offerings). Without worship, without the daily rituals that centre on the sesaji, for Men Mo there was no life.

Men Mo is a tiny, dark-skinned, illiterate woman from Pengubengan. Her given name is Luh Asih. She is the meme (mother) of Monastra, her eldest son, so by local custom she is called ‘Men Mo’, the mother of Mo. Luh Asih was born and has spent her whole life in Pengubengan Kauh, a traditional hamlet (banjar) that is part of the traditional village (desa adat) Kerobokan Kota Utara, not far from Kuta, Bali.

Everyone knows Kuta as the icon of Bali’s tourism, and a popular tourist destination since the 1930s. As tourism became a major industry, it expanded rapidly northward to the area where Men Mo and her husband Pan Mo live. Pengubengan changed very quickly. Farmland was sold to support the tourism industry, and the price skyrocketed. Like many other banjar, Pengubengan was a community of farmers, but the shift in the function of the land has changed the types of work available to the local people. None of Men Mo’s children work in farming. After gaining a high school education, they have become cogs in the tourism industry. They work in hotels, own warungs or small shops, or work as drivers or in restaurants. But not everyone in Pengubengan Kuah is able to pursue these new types of work. Older women feel the impact of the changes most, because all their knowledge and skill lies in the world of farming.

According to Men Mo, when she was young, Pengubengan was a vast, fertile rice growing area. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but expanses of rice fields, with small shelters (kubu) marking the ownership boundaries. From before she was married, her only skills were rice farming and making jarit (woven coconut leaves), canang and banten for sesaji. After she married, she and her husband farmed the fields that they bought and those they inherited from their parents.

When they needed money for their children’s education, to prepare them for the many jobs opening up in the tourism industry, they sold off their land little by little, even though it was the source of their livelihood. Now, Men Mo and her husband are sharecroppers. They cultivate sixty ares (6000 square meters) of rice fields, owned by the same city dweller who bought their land from them. Their wage is one fifth of the rice crop that is produced, enough to meet their own needs. Men Mo and her husband are grateful that they don’t have to buy rice, but this security could be lost at any time if the owner decides to build on the land.

Tourism brought an income to many of the local families. Their homes have been renovated, and from the outside, their poverty is not obvious. But as Balinese, residents of a banjar, they have traditional religious and social obligations. But now, the materials for the rituals are not longer available from the natural environment and have to be bought with cash. Life therefore seems very fragile, as they experienced when Bali’s economy suddenly seemed to halt.

There is another process which brings impoverishment to the people of Bali – mortgaging of land. Once mortgaged, almost no one is able to redeem their farmland once it has been transferred to the moneylenders.

Bali may be the most dramatic example of such shifts in land use and its consequences for women. The rapid growth of tourism has forced Bali to choose between this industry and maintaining the agriculture sector. In fact, most people don’t really have a choice – they are essentially being forced to abandon their agrarian culture. Those who cannot survive are pushed into the interior, or become transmigrants or migrant workers. And yet it is Bali’s agrarian culture that is the heart and soul of its ‘Balinese’ – with its roots in religious rituals and traditions to maintain the balance between humankind, nature, and Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa (God). []

Islam and Indonesia’s New Social Orphans

This article was originall published in Jakarta Globe.

Every Ramadan, Muslims talk not only about fasting but also about helping orphans. Indeed, for those who are unable to fast and cannot make up for this later in the year, feeding orphans or the poor is seen as an equivalent deed.

In the Koran there are many verses that command us to uphold our prayers and to fast, followed immediately by a social obligation to help the poor: “Perform the prayers, pay zakat.”

But who exactly are these “orphans” and, considering the dramatic and ongoing changes in our social structure, isn’t it about time to review this concept?

Parents out of the picture

Generally, the Indonesian term yatim piatu is used to refer to children who have lost both parents — yatim is a child without a father, while piatu means a child without a mother. This interpretation is based on the assumption that parents are the sole source of both life and protection. However, the structure of society and the factors that cause children to become “orphans” have changed considerably in recent times.

Changes in our living space have altered the extended family structure throughout Indonesia. Traditional economic resources have been destroyed, but the economic resources that have replaced them — such as oil palm plantations, mining, oil and gas extraction and the cement industry — do not recognize a social or communal role of protection.

And so children and teenagers become social orphans: they have no parents, as their parents are absent, but they also receive no protection from the extended family because it — also — has become powerless.

Sadly, the functions of traditional communities have become inadequate as a means of help, and in fact create social pressure to preserve the only remaining form of defense: the self-respect of the (otherwise ineffective) extended family.

Historical context

At the time the religious commands about helping orphans and the poor were revealed, parents were the source of protection, backed by their tribe or clan. In a traditional agrarian society, the functions of social protection and support, support from nature, and other mechanisms of protection, as documented in the moral guidelines in the Koran, were quite effective in aiding orphans and the poor.

In the social structure of historical Mecca and Medina, these functions grew and expanded in a communal society that depended on the strength of the clans, in which the tribal leaders carried out these protective functions. Islam then established rules, not merely as normative ideals (in the period when the Prophet Muhammad was still in Mecca) but also as explicit regulations for the procedure and its implementation (during the prophet’s time in Medina).

The Koran describes in great detail how these protection mechanisms are to be organized, such as the obligations to pay zakat fitrah (annually at Idul Fitri, the end-of-Ramadan celebrations), zakat mal (charitable donations), payments of fines for religious violations and it even presents specific calculations. This, at the time, was considered adequate to provide for orphans and the poor.

The problem is that in the modern socioeconomic structure, the term “orphans” should actually apply not only to those whose parents are no longer alive, but also those who have effectively lost their parents — such as children and adolescents whose parents are working in other provinces or as migrant workers abroad. These are children whose parents are alive but who have lost their entire social support network.

At the same time, the social functions of the extended family or clan can no longer be relied on, due to the interventions of corporations, the state and the wider context of economic globalization. The protective powers of parents and relatives have been eroded by same social changes that create these new social orphans.

Consider, for example, regions where many parents have gone away as migrant workers, such as West Nusa Tenggara, East Java, West Java, and West and South Kalimantan. The rates of child marriage in these regions are extremely high. The cause is obvious: children grow up without substitute parents who are able to safeguard their growth and development.

Religion of justice

We can explore the changes in Indonesians’ living space further by looking at statistics. School dropout rates and maternal and child mortality rates are all higher for residents in regions that undergo significant changes in their living spaces: from natural forests to oil palm plantations, from irrigated rice field agriculture to the tourism industry, from natural beaches and coastlines to iron-sand mining sites.

These changes in the structure of society, in power relations, and in living spaces create a multitude of social orphans. They have generated massive wealth for some and massive exploitation for others. These changes have also altered social relations to become more exploitative and oppressive. In this changing social structure, the meaning of the term “orphans” thus has to be expanded as well.

The protection of orphans needs to be seen in a new perspective.

What we need are ideas rooted in religion and society that recognize the concept of social orphans. Only then can we seek a solution through the injunction to fast and provide for those in need. Without this, Islam will merely be a set of rituals that has lost its essence as a religion of justice that defends the poor and the weak.