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Kidnap for marriage: a barbaric tradition that refuses to die

Videos of two Indonesian women being forced into marriage have put the issue in the spotlight

Kidnap for marriage: a barbaric tradition that refuses to die

Videos of two girls being forced into marriage have sparked outrage in Indonesia.

Forced marriage has long been a serious problem in several parts of Indonesia, including in Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara province. It’s an illegal practice but is seen as a tradition in some places.   

Despite international criticism and efforts to curb the practice, two videos recently circulated on social media that show two women in the province being forced into marriage, have thrust the issue back into the spotlight.

In footage taken on June 16 and June 23 on Sumba island, the women are seen struggling while being restrained as they are married off to a couple of men.

Martha Hebi, an activist from the Solidarity of Women and Children group based in Central Sumba, told UCA News that the two cases were a microscopic image of a much larger practice known locally as yappa maradda — the kidnapping of a woman to be married.

It’s a weapon invoking local custom used by men to take the girl of their dreams. "When a man wants a woman, he can kidnap her easily even though she does not want him at all," she says.

In many cases, women are sexually harassed, even raped, to instill shame so that they have no choice but to bend to a man's will, she adds.

"After sex, they [men] report the act to the women’s families in order for them to proceed with arranging a marriage as is customary in local society," Hebi says.

The videos of the two girls being forced into marriage have sparked outrage in other parts of Indonesia and shocked President Joko Widodo. Some people have reported the incidents to police and called for an end to the practice.

Father Paulus Dwiyaminarta from the Redemptorists' Sarnelli Legal Aid Office — who joined efforts to help the two women — says tough justice is expected in both cases “so that it can be an important precedent in efforts to erase the practice.”

He says his team has handled four cases involving kidnap for marriage but so far only one case, which involved an 18-year-old girl, resulted in a conviction. The girl managed to escape after being held for three days. Five men who kidnapped her were jailed for three years.

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"Other cases, including one involving a 17-year-old Catholic girl, fizzled out because there were efforts to resolve the issue within the community, according to custom," the priest says.

A girl is forced into a car by men in a kidnap for marriage on Sumba island. (YouTube screengrab)

Symbolic tradition

Umbu Sangaji, 77, a local tribal leader, says the practice started off as a symbolic tradition that has been abused by men seeking to satisfy their lust.

“It used to be a symbolic thing among families to show that they had a lot of wealth and was almost entirely consensual,” he says.

However, nowadays, yappa maradda is being abused by men who want to get a wife no matter what. Even a woman who already has a partner can fall victim, he says. 

This kind of practice must end as it degrades human dignity. Moreover, the targets are generally underage girls. Hebi says.

She cited a case in 2017 when a 13-year-old girl in the province’s Central Sumba district was raped repeatedly over three days by her abductors. Although the child was rescued by police, her attackers were not charged “because it was considered part of tradition.”

In some cases, men are unwilling perpetrators as they are forced by their families to kidnap a woman, Hebi says.

Divine Word Father Gregorius Neonbasu, an anthropologist from the Catholic University of Widya Mandira Kupang, told UCA News that modern society has no place for such barbaric practices. "It deserves to be eradicated," he says.

Finding a way out

During a visit to Sumba on July 2, Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Bintang Puspayoga met four district heads who agreed to end the practice.

"I hope that this violence against women won't happen any longer in Sumba," she told them.

If this is to happen, people have to understand that choosing a partner in life requires free and mutual decisions, Father Dwiyaminarta says.

"Choosing a life partner is a universal human right," he says, adding everyone has to respect a person’s right to choose. 

Father Neonbasu has called on religious leaders to sit down with civic leaders to discuss ways to solve the problem.

"Avoid the washing of hands to ignore this problem,” the priest says. “What is needed is a willingness to discuss it together."

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