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Weddings are no fairytale for Indonesia's child brides

Activists decry lack of government effort in preventing rights violations against young girls as a result of child marriages

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Weddings are no fairytale for Indonesia's child brides

A young actress, (center) plays the role of Giorgia, 10, forced to marry Paolo, 47, during an event organised by Amnesty International to denounce child marriage, on Oct. 27 in Rome. (Photo by AFP)

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Sukesih was only 15 when she married in 1997.

"I was a fourth grader. I had to stop school. It was because of the economic difficulties faced by my father, a pedicab driver with five children to feed," she told ucanews.com.

She gave birth to a girl in May the next year. For the first few months, her husband, working as a daily laborer, met all the daily needs. When her daughter was three months, however, she had to work as a laundress to make ends meet as her husband stopped working.

That was when the real problems surfaced.

"We argued a lot," she said. "He repeatedly hit me, cursed me and then kicked me out."

In 1999, she divorced her husband.

"I couldn't take anymore," she said.

A year later, she married again and gave birth to two more daughters. However, hard times forced her to work as a migrant in Bahrain for two years. She sent all her money to her husband, who sometimes worked as a motorcycle taxi driver.

"When I returned in 2009, I found my husband had married another woman. We had fights. I was often subjected to domestic violence," she said.

Not surprisingly, she left him.

In 2011, she married yet again. Still, similar problems frequently surfaced.

Sukesih is now 35 and among more than 700 million women around the world who have fallen victim to child marriage, a global phenomenon that remains a serious problem in Indonesia, in which 50,000 girls marry before the age of 15 every year.

Child marriage is a violation of human rights and against international law, according to the U.N. and rights groups. It deprives girls of their childhood, an education and exposes them to health risks especially with regard to childbirth and their general well-being, it says.

Future prospects are also grim and the girls are at greater risk of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their husband and his family, they say.  

According to UNICEF, one in six Indonesian girls, about 340,000, are married before their 18th birthday each year.

Indonesia is 37th on the global child marriage index and has the second-highest rate in Southeast Asia, behind Cambodia.


Irrelevant law

Misiyah Misi, director of women's rights group the Institute of Alternative Education Circle for Women, said Indonesia's 1974 marriage law setting 16 as the minimum age at which women can marry should be changed.

The minimum age is often ignored or not enforced resulting in many child brides under 16 years of age she said.

"Several groups have filed petitions for a judicial review of the law, but they were rejected by the Constitutional Court," she told ucanews.com.

In March 2014, the Women's Health Foundation and a coalition of activists and organisations filed an appeal, arguing that the law was inconsistent with a 2002 child protection law that defines a child as being under 18.

It was also inconsistent with a 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Indonesia ratified in 1984, they said.

In June 2015, the court dismissed the appeal, saying a change to the minimum age for marriage was not warranted since there was no guarantee that increasing the age from 16 to 18 would reduce divorce rates or other social problems.

President Joko Widodo should issue a presidential decree banning child marriage and enforce it, Misi said.

"It is the time for president to act," she said.


Impacts and measures

For 46-year-old Uun, she said she had no choice but to marry off her only daughter when she was 16.

"She had been in a relationship with the man for five years. I was afraid she would get pregnant outside of marriage," she said.

Social pressure was also a reason she said, adding that people in her village in West Java's Kuningan district were gossiping and pointing fingers.

Lenny N. Rosalin, deputy head for child growth and development affairs at the Ministry for Women Empowerment and Child Protection, said even though a law setting a minimum marriage age exists enforcement is hampered by social attitudes that allow child marriage to flourish.

As such, her ministry is looking to tackle the problem by trying to change attitudes, she said.

"We've formed child forums in which children are encouraged to serve as agents of change and we introduced awareness programs to educate parents," she told ucanews.com.

"We are also encouraging schools to provide sex education and religious and tribal leaders to campaign against child marriage," she said.

Holy Family Father Hibertus Hartana, secretary of the Indonesian bishops' family commission, suggested all related parties should work together.

"There must be four elements: family, government, religious leaders and tribal leaders. They have to sit together and work together to tell people about the negative impacts of child marriage," he said.

For the likes of Sukesih the damage has already been done.

"I hope in the future, there will be no more child marriages," she said.

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