Child marriage and the perpetuation of poverty

Parents marrying off their teenage daughters may appear to be a good economic move for poor families. It’s not –it only perpetuates poverty and has major emotional and physical impacts on young girls.

Child marriage and the perpetuation of poverty AFP Photo/Indonesian Navy

Child marriage has been proven to be a leading cause of maternal mortality and childhood stunting in Indonesia and tends to perpetuate poverty. The scale of the problem is immense. While statistics vary, Indonesia’s Ministry of Health has reported that around 47 percent of Indonesian women married between the ages of 10 and 19, increasing the risk of maternal death because their uteruses are not yet fully developed. But in many cases, marrying a child off early, especially if she is a girl, means one less mouth to feed, while cultural traditions in areas such as West Sulawesi Province also contribute to high levels of child marriage.

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has refused to consider raising the legal age of marriage because Islamic texts do not provide any guidance on the issue, but some clerics are starting to spread the message that the practice of child marriage has negative impacts. Nevertheless, the complex issues involved in child marriage are likely to make it difficult to stop, and in the meantime, many more young women are likely to suffer the consequences.

A haunting silence

Early marriage is a clear cause of Indonesia’s high level of maternal mortality and is also likely to perpetuate poverty. Despite the negative effects of the custom, there is an overwhelming sense of silence surrounding child marriage in Indonesia. Communities rarely talk about its effects and consequences, as they accept it as part of the country’s social fabric. On a global scale, Indonesia is among 10 countries with the highest absolute number of child brides and second after Cambodia in Southeast Asia. The practice is largely driven by socioeconomic factors surrounding girls, including poverty, economic dependency, financial incentives and dowry practices, as well as a lack of access to education and health services.

The scale of the problem is immense. Indonesia’s National Socioeconomic Survey in 2012 showed that about 11 percent of Indonesian girls were married between ages 10 and 15, and about 32 percent were married between 16 and 18. A United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef ) report in 2016, however, painted a less dramatic picture. It stated that an estimated one in every seven girls in Indonesia was married before the age of 18. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) states that in 2012, 25 percent of women aged 20 to 24 were married before they were 18 years old. At least 4,809 Indonesian women died during pregnancy and childbirth in 2016, down from 5,019 fatalities recorded in 2012. The national maternal mortality rate stood at a relatively high level of 305 per 100,000 births in 2016, although down from 359 per 100,000 births in 2012. Eni Gustina, the Indonesian health ministry’s family health director, has stated that anemia was the main cause of death, with 37 percent of victims suffering from red blood cell deficiency due to lack of proper nutrition during pregnancy.

Offcial action

Steps are being taken to try to deal with the problem. Surya Chandra Surapaty, head of the National Family Planning Coordinating Board, said his institution was working on campaigns to raise awareness of women’s reproductive health. Women should avoid getting pregnant at a young or advanced age, receive proper health checks and avoid short intervals between pregnancies, he said. The board is cooperating with the national government to establish a nationwide family planning village program to educate the public about reproductive issues and encourage the use of long-term contraceptives instead of short-term methods that often fall short of achieving the desired outcome.

Yet despite awareness in Jakarta, rural communities remain extremely accepting of child marriage. Rural areas show particularly high levels of child marriage, and some areas stand out as extreme examples. West Sulawesi tops the list of provinces with the highest prevalence of child marriage, with 36 percent, according to a study conducted by Unicef and BPS in 2015. The province also had the highest rates of child marriage before the age of 15, as the practice is a deeply entrenched cultural tradition. Central Kalimantan Province was second with 36 percent of marriages involving girls under 18, followed by the provinces of Central Sulawesi (35 percent), South Kalimantan (33 percent), Southeast Sulawesi (32 percent), Papua (32 percent) and Gorontalo (31 percent). Some of the confusion about just how many child marriages there are is the result of the widespread practice of nikah siri – Islamic marriages that are not registered with the state.

A legal perspective

Indonesia’s 1974 Marriage Law states that the minimum age for marriage is 21, but it allows girls aged 16 and boys aged 19 to marry as long as they secure parental consent. In allowing young girls to marry, this stipulation contradicts Indonesia’s own 2002 Child Protection Law and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. These two major legal instruments regulate that an individual younger than 18 years old is considered a child. Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in 2015 rejected a judicial review of the Marriage Law. It refused to raise the legal age of marriage for girls to 18 on the grounds that it would encourage them to engage in premarital sex, which is unacceptable to conservative political elites.

The court noted that no minimum marriageable age for girls is stated in Islamic texts. “It is the right of all people to marry when and with whom they want to be married,” the court said. And, it added, there is no guarantee that raising the minimum marriage age would positively affect women’s rights, reproductive health, divorce rates or other social problems. The ruling denied significant medical evidence that early childbearing is detrimental to the health of mothers.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is in charge of marriage registration, says it is impossible for the institution to identify all underage couples through the review of

The Constitutional Court refused to raise the legal age of marriage for girls to 18 on the grounds that it would encourage them to engage in premarital sex.

their marriage applications. The ministry processes all documents needed for a marriage application, but says it does not have the capacity to evaluate eligibility. Many underage couples forge their personal data or avoid the process completely by failing to register the marriage. Child marriage may therefore also involve forgery, bribery and possibly corruption.

Few rights for young women

The main causes of child marriage vary across Indonesian regions and communities, but often center on control of girls’ sexuality and the issue of poverty. Discriminatory gender norms, including traditions that oblige a girl to live with her husband’s family, while a boy remains with and financially supports his parents, contribute to perceptions that daughters are an economic burden while sons are a long-term investment. 

Poor access to education is also a contributing factor. When school is too expensive or the commute too difficult, families often pull their girls out or they drop out on their own, and the girls are subsequently much more likely to be married off. Even when girls have easy access to schools, teacher absenteeism and the poor quality of education may cause them and their parents to feel that it is not worth the time or expense, according to a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch, “Ending Child Marriage.”

Girls may also be kept out of school because they are expected to work, either at home or sometimes as poorly paid workers to help ease their families’ financial burden. This, combined with a lack of support from schools or from husbands and in-laws, often prevents married girls from continuing their education. Many girls and their families also consider poverty as another factor justifying child marriage. The stress of living in poor conditions prompts some parents to marry off their daughters early. Based on these factors, child marriage inevitably violates the principles of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, its Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By legitimizing child marriage as facilitated by the Marriage Law, the Indonesian government has failed to uphold some basic rights for children, including:

  • The right to education. Girls marrying before age 18 are at least six times less likely to complete secondary education or its equivalent compared to girls marrying after 18, according to the study by Unicef and BPS. Around 85 percent of child brides do not continue their education, as many schools reject their presence, particularly if they become pregnant. Some young married girls quit school voluntarily while others are forced to leave school rather than compromise the reputation of the school. The result is a child bride with a low education level that leaves her with no role in the decision-making process in her household. They are also less capable of making a financial contribution to their family, resulting in the perpetuation of poverty.
  • The right to protection against violence. Child marriage increases a girl’s vulnerability to physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Child brides have very little power to defend themselves. The Unicef-BPS study found that 41 percent of married girls aged between 15 and 19 believe that domestic violence is common. They justify violence committed by their husbands for any reason. Many countries fail to criminalize marital rape and child brides have little ability to seek help from abuse. Limited information about their rights, lack of access to legal assistance and emergency shelters, discriminatory 

    The stress of living in poor conditions prompts some parents to marry off their daughters early.

    divorces, inheritance and custody laws, and rejection from their own families can leave married girls trapped in abusive marriages with no chance of escape, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

  • The right to protection against exploitation. Child marriages often occur without the approval of the young couple themselves. Seen as a burden on their family, marrying children off can be seen as a way out of financial problems. In reality, however, most underage married couples are poorly educated, and instead of helping the family reduce their economic burden, child marriage in fact tends to perpetuate poverty among the family.

Children most likely have little bargaining power to get a job of any quality, and few job opportunities exist for underage workers. As a result, child marriage creates a cycle of unending poverty instead of alleviating it. Researchers have also found that some child marriages are related to human trafficking. Poor economic prospects in rural areas act as a powerful incentive for young people to try their luck working overseas as domestic workers, so they can contribute financially to their families.

Under Indonesian law, the minimum age for girls to work abroad is 17. Alternatively, they can simply provide their marriage certificate instead of a birth certificate. However, as the practice of child marriage often involves identity card manipulation, officials who process the girls’ work permits can simply conclude that if the girl is married, she must meet the criteria. Child marriage has thus become a way to legitimize child labor.

Maternal and child health

The Unicef-BPS study showed that reproductive problems including spontaneous abortion and complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for Indonesian girls between ages 15 and 19. Many girls have poor access to sexual and reproductive health information and services: how they get pregnant, reliable contraception methods, protection against sexually transmitted infections, prenatal services and emergency obstetric care.

A girl who marries young will have a long period of fertility and may become pregnant too often in her lifetime, creating a higher risk of medical complications. For very young girls, obstetric fistula is a common reproductive health problem because their reproductive organs are not fully developed. Studies also show that child marriage is one of the causes of cervical cancer, because of intercourse at a very young age.

In the meantime, babies born to mothers aged under 20 are 1.5 times more likely to die during the first 28 days compared to babies

AFP Photo/Choo Youn-Kong

born to mothers in their 20s or 30s, according to Unicef data. Many babies of underage mothers are born premature, compared to those born to mothers aged above 20. Most of the premature babies born to underage mothers have a low birth weight and suffer from undernourishment. The Unicef-BPS study showed that babies born to Indonesian mothers aged below 19 have a 30 percent to 40 percent higher risk of suffering from stunting. Thus, from a demographic perspective, child marriage will inevitably decrease the potential of Indonesia benefiting from its demographic advantage.

Child Marriage and divorce

Many couples who marry as children struggle to manage the stress of their new responsibilities, which increases the chance of divorce, according to research by the USbased Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Its research showed that divorce rates are relatively high among underage married couples on the island of Lombok, in the East Java city of Banyuwangi, Bandar Lampung in South Sumatra, and Semarang in Central Java.

In Banyuwangi, Indonesia’s religious affairs ministry reported that underage married couples account for 90 percent of all divorces in the city. However, the country’s religious courts body denies this, stating that child marriage has never been the main cause of divorce in Banyuwangi. In 2013, the body recorded 319,066 divorce cases registered at religious courts nationwide, but said only 600 were due to child marriage. East Java Province had the most divorces from underage marriage, with 347. Central Java Province placed second with 97, followed by South Sulawesi Province with 51 and West Java Province with 39 cases. Jakarta only recorded 16 child marriage-related divorce cases.

AFP Photo/Romeo Gacad

Child marriage and Islamic conservatism

In August 2016, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehriki-Taliban Pakistan) released the first edition of a magazine for women, apparently aiming to convince its target readership to join the militant group and take up jihad. While the publication probably has minimal circulation in Indonesia, it presented a defense of child marriage with which some Indonesians might agree. The first edition of Sunnat e-Khaula, referring to an early female follower of the Prophet Muhammad, features a photo of a woman veiled from head to toe on its front cover, according to media reports.

Inside is an interview with the wife of Pakistani Taliban leader Fazlullah Khorasani, who is not named. She talks about being married off at the age of 14. “I ask you why, now everywhere there is hue and cry about underage marriages,” the woman is quoted as saying. She adds: “We have to understand that mature boys and girls, if left unmarried for too long, can become a source of moral destruction of the society.”

Parents in Indonesia and other Muslim societies may believe that it is better to marry off a young girl rather than have her disgrace the family’s name by having sex outside of marriage. The availability of pornography on social media tends to alarm Indonesian parents, who may feel they have to lock up their daughters to protect them. One way of locking them up is to marry them off.

Not all Muslim clerics prefer to stay silent on the issue. A fatwa, or religious edict, prohibiting child marriage was issued by 300 female Islamic clerics meeting in Jakarta in April 2016. This represents a good start to curb the practice of child marriage and serves as a potential wake-up call that the practice has more negative than positive impacts. The clerics called on the government to raise the minimum legal age for women to marry to 18. Most of the female clerics attending the congress were from Indonesia, but speakers from as far away as Kenya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also took part in the conference, which was the first major gathering of female Muslim clerics in Indonesia.

Officials from Indonesia’s Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection have noted that male Muslim clerics in Central Java and West Nusa Tenggara provinces have agreed to promote a campaign against child marriage by delivering sermons during Friday prayers, since Muslim men can be agents of change against child marriages. One major problem is that some Muslim clerics use the onset of puberty as a marker for readiness for marriage. This narrow view is a considerable barrier to ending child marriage in Indonesia, as communities accept the practice as part of the social fabric.

Symptoms of a wider problem

Studies show a relationship between child marriage and economic and political problems. Thus, the Indonesian government needs to treat this issue as a top priority. Revising regulations that provide loopholes for child marriage is absolutely critical. However, this may still not be enough, as people and government bureaucracy will always find a way to bend the rules. Government institutions and the country’s judicial system remain conflicted in their approach to child marriage and the problems it causes. Efforts to protect children from child marriage have too often been twisted to manipulate the system in order to allow the practice to continue.

The Constitutional Court’s rejection of a petition to increase the age limits in the Marriage Law shows ignorance of the larger problems surrounding child marriage: that the matter is not merely related to sexual and religious issues. Arguments based on tradition, customary law and Islamic principles should not be allowed to justify the practice of child marriage. They only increase the harmful effects on children, which include but are not limited to educational deprivation, economic disparity, marital rape and disturbed physical and psychological health.

Given the diversity of views on the issue, it is little surprise that the Indonesian government has declined to tighten regulations governing child marriage. If it wanted to stamp out the practice, it would need to implement a strict policy of comprehensive public education, including sex education, to encourage awareness among communities about the harmful effects of child marriage. The government could also make the parents of underage married couples accountable for marrying off their children. Closer cooperation between the government and women’s rights activists, religious figures, educational institutions and health practitioners is urgently needed. Related parties should provide proper protection for children who manage to escape forced marriage.

Child marriage is an important albeit difficult matter to deal with, as it is related to a wide spectrum of attitudes and development stages. Indonesia is now officially a middleincome nation, but many parts of the country remain economically and culturally backward. While that is no excuse for inaction on the part of government and society, stamping out the practice of underage marriage will clearly take time.



Lupita Wijaya is a lecturer at Universitas Multimedia Nusantara in Tangerang, Indonesia.

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