Child brides: Why underage girls are marrying in Indonesia

Aulia* was 15 when she was married. There wasn’t a lot of choice. She had been dating Arief, a sweet-faced boy from the local garage, and the neighbourhood tongues were in overdrive.

“There was all this shaming,” Arief recalls. “I hadn’t actually kissed her and everybody gossiped about her being pregnant.”

Neither were ready for marriage. Aulia had dropped out of school because her stepfather couldn’t afford to send her, but wanted to go back: “My friend was still at school.”

Arief wanted to save for a few years. He dreamed of a big wedding to show off to his motorcycle club.

But Aulia and Arief live in a small, devoutly Muslim village in rural Sukabumi in West Java and the gossip was pernicious.

“It took my mother a month to persuade me to get married,” Aulia says. “She kept saying: ‘Don’t embarrass me’.”

The couple are sitting cross-legged on a rug in their tiny, dark rented home, its walls made of flimsy woven bamboo. They are clearly intimate. While candidly admitting they regret marrying so young, they insist they don’t regret marrying each other.

But at the time Arief did the only thing he could think of to escape his fate: He ran away.

“I went to my grandmother’s house and hid under the bed. My grandfather rooted me out. After that I put up my hands and said ‘I surrender’.” A week later the couple was married.

Indonesia has the seventh highest number of child marriages in the world.

One in six girls – 340,000 a year – marry before they reach the age of 18, the threshold for marriage recommended by international human rights treaty bodies.

Under the 1974 Marriage Law, girls can legally marry at 16, although boys must be at least 19.

This contradicts Indonesia’s own 2002 law on child protection, which defines a child as someone under the age of 18.

And parents can appeal to religious courts for their children to marry when they are even younger.

Many children simply lie about their age on the marriage certificate or hold a religious ceremony at home that is not formally registered.

Shinta and Denny will wait to register their marriage until Denny reaches the proper age. They were persuaded by their parents to be married by an ustadz (religious teacher) when they were 17 and 18 respectively.

Shinta and Denny will wait to register their marriage until they are both of majority age. Photo: Irwin Fedriansyah

“It was the talk of the town that we were alone together in the house and something bad might happen,” says Denny, a motorcycle taxi driver with a wispy moustache. “Most of the time my mother was here,” Shinta chips in shyly.

Shinta wants to go back to school but most schools in Indonesia actively discourage married or pregnant girls. According to one report, 85 per cent of girls end their education once they marry.

The couple are living in Denny’s parents’ austere, half-built house. It’s empty of furniture except for a broken cupboard and a calendar hanging askew on the wall.

The local midwife offered Shinta birth control but the price – 30,000 rupiah ($3) a month – is unaffordable. A baby seems inevitable.

Indonesia’s first child marriage report, Progress on Pause – published last year by the Indonesian government and UN children’s agency UNICEF – pulls no punches.

The report says child marriage is a “fundamental violation of girls’ human rights”, limiting their education, health, future income and safety.

Disturbingly, it found child marriage prevalence in Indonesia had reached a plateau after three decades of decreasing and was now consistent at the high rate of 17 per cent.

In 2014, child marriage caused a loss of at least 1.7 per cent of GDP.

Fifty thousand girls still marry before the age of 15 each year in Indonesia.

“It is very concerning,” says Indonesian child protection commissioner Sitti Hikmawatty. She believes the reasons are complex and require more analysis.

Rasiana Maharti is an 18-year-old teenage ambassador for Cikidang, a sub-regency of Sukabumi.

She earnestly implores her peers to say no to drugs and “free sex” (sex outside marriage), which is often associated with loose Western morals.

Rasiana Maharti is a teenage ambassador for abstinence from drugs and sex. Photo: Irwin Fedriansyah

Girls in Sukabumi are haunted by the fear of free sex, both because it is immoral and because it can lead to unplanned pregnancies.

Two of the girls in Rasiana’s class got married. “One married her boyfriend in the second grade of senior high when she was 15 to prevent zina [the Islamic sin of illicit sex],” Rasiana says. “One got married at 16 because she was pregnant.”

This is consistent with research by Mies Grijns, who – together with a team of young Indonesian anthropologists – has spent four years researching child marriage in a village of 8000 people in northern Sukabumi.

“It used to be parents arranging the marriage, but now you have love affairs,” Grijns says.

Adolescents now have more opportunities to meet each other at school or online, they even refer to “Facebook marriages”.

“Young people these days have a much bigger choice in partners but parents decide when they will get married mainly because of the fear of zina or because the girl is pregnant,” Grijns says.

Grijns, an anthropologist from the Netherlands who grew up in Indonesia, has lived in this village on and off since 1981, when she began studying labour and gender relations at a large tea plantation in the mountains.

‘Young people these days have a much bigger choice in partners’: anthropologist Mies Grijns. Photo: Irwin Fedriansyah

“I would see so many girls walking around with young babies but thought they were the sisters, not the mothers. That is how blind you can be,” she says.

It was not until she began sponsoring children to attend school that she noticed girls were dropping out to get married: “I was thinking ‘this is 2000. What is happening?'”

Today Grijns is in the last stage of her PhD research exploring contemporary child marriage in West Java and how and why it still happens. “I wanted to understand what was happening, what the positives and negatives were, what girls and their husbands thought of it.”

When Grijns began her research not much had been written about child marriage in Indonesia and the prevailing NGO view was that it was akin to slavery.

Her research reveals a more nuanced reality – some pious girls consider it an honour to be married at 13 – and a diversity of reasons for child marriage.

There are two main groups of villagers who marry young. Firstly the sweethearts who tie the knot because of the fear of zina and village gossip or because the girl was pregnant; and secondly those from more orthodox Muslim communities.

Grijns says these more orthodox communities consider primary school sufficient for girls. “There is an expectation girls should be married early and have children early. Usually girls are happy with it because they have internalised their religion and feel good.”

Novita, a vivacious 20-year-old in a sequined T-shirt, pours tea into glass mugs engraved with hearts and proudly shows off the woven bamboo house her husband built.

She left school at 12 because she was teased for developing breasts at a young age. After working as a babysitter for three years she married at 15: “I was ready at the time to get married, my hobby is taking care of children.”

‘If you are not married by the age of 25 you are an old spinster’: Novita, who married at 15, with her son. Photo: Irwin Fedriansyah

A month later Novita was pregnant. Her son, who plays quietly on his mum’s phone on the padded floral quilt, was born five years ago after a seamless pregnancy.

“In this village almost everyone marries young, it’s not a problem,” Novita says. “If you are not married by the age of 25 you are an old spinster.”

A grassroots movement called Koalisi +18 has campaigned throughout Indonesia to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18.

However in June 2015 the Constitutional Court rejected a petition for a judicial review of Indonesia’s marriage law. Eight male judges – interestingly, the only dissenting voice was the one female judge – argued keeping the marriage age low prevented premarital sex and babies born out of wedlock.

“There is no guarantee raising the age limit from 16 to 18 years would reduce the number of divorces, health problems or resolve social problems,” one of the judges said.

But this year female Islamic clerics issued an unprecedented fatwa, or ruling, against child marriage at a congress in West Java that drew participants from Malaysia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The fatwa – which is not legally binding – called underage marriage harmful, pointing to heightened risks of sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth, and said that it must be prevented.

In the village of Sanetan, in Central Java, there is a saying that it is better to be a divorcee than a spinster.

At the age of 22, Sanita Rini is well and truly considered a spinster. “A neighbour once even visited my mother and said: ‘What’s wrong with your daughter, no one wants her?'”

It wasn’t through a lack of effort on the part of Rini’s parents. They tried to marry her off twice, once when she was 13 and then again when she was 15, to males five years her senior: “Both times my parents said it was to lessen the economic burden on the family.”

Rini promised to pay everything back they had spent on her education if they allowed her to stay at school. “If you marry me off you will get nothing because I will have a new family of my own,” she threatened.

‘What’s wrong with your daughter?’: Sanita Rini with her parents on graduation day. They had pressed her to marry when she was 13. Photo: Supplied

Rini studied economics at university and now works for Plan International, a humanitarian organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. She has even persuaded a number of villages in Central Java – including her own – to pass a regulation raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 for girls.

“Now my parents are proud of me,” Rini says. “When other kids my age are struggling to find a job, I have a job. I am showing my parents that not marrying me off is an investment for our future.

“It took a lot to be where I am. But many girls lack that and it is something I want to change.”

* Some names have been changed at the request of those interviewed. However they have given permission for their photos to be used.

Henry Sapiecha

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