A baby sheep is playing in a sandpit when her parents come with a bearded old goat about to ask for her hand in marriage.

Child Marriage in Indonesia is Illegal. But Why is it Still Prevalent?

Despite the existence of government regulations and legislation, child marriage in Indonesia remains a serious issue. While it is normally framed as religious or cultural, a key driving factor is poverty, including a lack of access to education and information and the parents’ desperation to escape the cycle of destitution.

In February 2021, Indonesians were taken aback when a website, “aishaweddings”, promoted child marriage in Depok, West Java. Aishaweddings was an Indonesian wedding planner that offered numerous controversial services (Kompas, 2021; The Straits Times, 2021), such as providing unregistered marriage services to polygamists and encouraging women to marry as early as 12. In particular, the wedding organiser sparked heavy controversy by citing ayat (Quranic verses) to justify and defend their provision of these services. Due to their actions, Aishaweddings was reported to the police for promoting child marriage (VOI, 2021).

Many parties criticised aishaweddings harshly. The wedding practices promoted by aishaweddings angered the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection. Several non-governmental organisations and religious leaders who had actively campaigned for child protection and against child marriage, among others, were also enraged. The main cause of concern was that the endorsement was supposedly grounded in religious beliefs (Aryacetana & Delliana, 2022).

However, whether or not child marriage is a religious practice is not the focus of this article. What is puzzling is that all this occurred despite child marriages already being illegal in Indonesia. From the Suharto to Joko Widodo administrations, Indonesian governments have a long history of attempting to prevent child marriage by passing successive marriage laws (for example, Law No. 1/1974, which was later amended or replaced by Law 16/2019). This suggests that legislation and legal frameworks are necessary but insufficient to affect change, a pattern that repeats in various other contexts. 

The Prevalence of Child Marriage in Indonesia

Child marriage is defined as any marriage of individuals under the age of 18, where the female partner is physically, physiologically, and psychologically not yet ready to assume responsibility for her marriage and to give birth to a child.

Umemoto, 2001; UNICEF, 2005; International Planned Parenthood Federation, 2006; Iustitiani and Ajisuksmo, 2018.

According to the KemenPPA (2021) and girlsnotbrides.org, 16% of girls in Indonesia were married before 18, and 2% were married before their 15th birthday. This phenomenon is not exclusive to girls. There were 5% of boys getting married before their 18th birthday. 10.8% of all marriages involve a child (Ratnaningsih et al., 2022). Indonesia has the eighth-highest number of girls married before age 18 worldwide, climbing to the third highest rank after Laos and the Philippines when looking at Southeast Asia (Rahiem, 2021; Yee, 2021).  

Child marriage may cause psychological trauma and domestic and sexual violence in young girls. In its most heinous form, it leads to the exploitation of child brides as domestic enslaved people or as sex trafficking victims, either during or after their marriage, when they are divorced or abandoned (Nour, 2009). 

Given the potential negative implications of child marriage, the pertinence and urgency of addressing it become clear.

Young girls are not physically, sexually, or psychologically prepared to be brides. At their life stage, they should prioritise personal development and education.

Why does child marriage in Indonesia persist despite the government having explicitly outlawed it? 

We echo Ratnaningsih et al.’s (2022) argument that this can be attributed to three key factors: poverty, cultural norms in their communities, and a lack of education and information. Together, they create a complicated set of incentives which push girls towards child marriage. Rural pesantren, which are led by misguided kiyai (local religious leaders), also contribute to child marriage in Indonesia. By understanding and breaking down these factors, this explainer hopes to set the stage for moving beyond a purely legislative perspective towards eradicating the tradition.

Understanding Indonesian Law

A marriage is only allowed when the female and male marriage candidates have reached the age of 19 (nineteen) years.

Article 7(1). Law No. 16/2019 

After the ratification of Law No. 16/2019, as expressed in Article 7 (1) above, the Minister of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection, Bintang Darmawati, ratified it,[1] stated that “Child marriage is one of the forms of violence against children and is a practice of violating children’s basic rights.”

In a  different part of her speech, Bintang said, “The impacts of child marriage are not only experienced by the children who are married, but also the children that will be born (from child marriage), and it (child marriage) has the potential to create intergenerational poverty.”

However, there is a critical loophole in the law called marriage dispensation. Marriage dispensation is a legal mechanism that allows couples under the minimum marriage age specified in Marriage Law Article 7 (2) to marry. 

Parents must submit a dispensation request to the Religious Court (for Muslims) or District Court (for non-Muslims). They are responsible for receiving, processing, and giving the final decision on the request, whether they approve it or not. 

The judges have four main considerations in deciding the results of the marriage dispensation request. The first consideration is related to the fiqiyah principle, which stipulates that approving the exemption is to prevent mudarat (damage). Second, the existence of an intimate relationship between the subject and his/her partner. Third, parents’ “anxiety” (presumably over their child’s risky behaviour). Fourth, the family’s financial condition. It might lead to the decision to marry their children at a young age.  

Marriage dispensation cases have been growing at an alarming rate in recent years (Data Indonesia, 2022). The number of marriage dispensations increased from 2020 to 2022 due to several circumstances, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The numbers may also increase due to the new law’s ratification in 2019.[2]

No. of Submissions of Marriage Dispensation Approved by Court

201611.488
201712.557
201813.489
201923.145
202063.382
202161.449
202250.673
Source: DataIndonesia, 2022.

This loophole enables legal child marriages, but it does not explain what might motivate parents to petition for their children to marry. In order to answer this, one must delve into the powerful economic, social, and cultural factors that encourage the continued practice of child marriages.

Key Factors Motivating Child Marriage in Indonesia

Economic Considerations

Many poor rural families in Indonesia face many difficulties regarding livelihood and getting a proper education. Poor economic considerations can be a powerful motivator for many instances of social behaviour, including even migrating to other countries as migrant workers in search of a better livelihood for their families back home. According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), a dispensation is usually applied when a family faces financial difficulties and decides to marry off their children at a young age to pass off the cost of continuing to support the child (Jurnal Perempuan, 2021).

According to a UNICEF report (2017), child marriage is strongly associated with rural residence, poorer housing conditions, and households with lower levels of expenditure, all of which are associated with poverty. 

Child marriage is a fundamental violation of girls’ human rights. It limits girls’ education, health, future income, safety, agency and abilities. It also restricts their status and roles in both the home and in society. The practice is largely driven by poverty and social norms that are rooted in the lower status of women and girls. Girls who marry early face devastating risks to their health and well-being.

– UNICEF Reports, 2017

Child marriage is over 1.5 times more prevalent in rural areas than in urban ones (27.1% vs. 17.1% in 2015), and this disparity has remained constant since 2008. It is especially prevalent in regions with a high poverty rate, such as South Sulawesi and West Nusa Tenggara (Ratnaningsih et al., 2022), two areas which we will focus on in the discussion below. In general, some researchers have argued that among the Indonesian rural poor, it is widely accepted that a daughter should marry at a young age as a means of economic mitigation. This transfers the responsibility and cost of the daughter to the new home, even though it will not guarantee that the intergenerational poverty will be alleviated, but at the very least, parents in rural poverty do not have to bear full responsibility over their daughters (Iustitiani & Ajisuksmo, 2018).

For the last six years, South Sulawesi’s poverty rate has been above the national average, where nine districts have a poverty rate two digits above the national average of 14.3% (Prakarsa, 2021). Among them are Jeneponto Regency, which has a poverty rate of 14.58%; Pangkajene and the Islands Regency  (13.96%); North Luwu Regency (13.41%); Luwu Regency (12.65%); Islands Selayar (12.48%), Enrekang Regency (12.17%); Tanah Toraja (12.10%), North Toraja (12.01%); and Bone Regency (10.68%).

In the Bone district, South Sulawesi, the prevalence of child marriage is 14%, higher than the provincial average of 12.1% and the national rate of 10.8%. In 2021, there were 2,496 cases of child marriage among 800,000 people  (Ratnaningsih et al., 2022). 

While poverty alone is insufficient in explaining why child marriages continue to happen, the far-reaching consequences of poverty cannot be understated. For example, poverty was identified as the primary reason why one-fifth of the 806,889 population felt compelled to leave Bone in pursuit of better opportunities (Bone Local Government, 2019; BPS, 2021; Abdussamad, 2021). It impacts children who grow up without their parents and are only nurtured by their grandparents or extended families. Parents might then persuade their children to marry young to ensure their safety and care. 

Alternatively, they rely on nearby pesantren as low-cost Islamic boarding schools. They believe pesantren can provide their children with a comprehensive education (see below). However, this then manifests as a lose-lose situation in safeguarding the children. We argue that this system is also a significant enabler of child marriage, which will be discussed further below.

The rate of child marriage in West Nusa Tenggara is 16.3%:  the fourth highest in Indonesia and significantly higher than the national average of 10.8% (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2021). A specific district with a high prevalence of child marriage is Bima, a low-income district with a Muslim majority.[3] Bima presents an example where many people migrate for better economic opportunities. 

In contrast, many of those who stay behind choose to take unskilled or “blue-collar” work to support their lives. This condition creates a cascading effect on people’s livelihoods. Wahidah (52), one of our research participants from Bima,[4] intends to relocate their children to an Islamic boarding school in the hopes that the school will care for their children better than they can. Wahidah said,

“…being poor in my family is such a legacy. I was poor. Now, I am still poor; maybe tomorrow, I will still be trapped in this poor condition. So, by moving my daughter to boarding school, she may have a chance to change her future.”

Another interviewee explicitly mentioned their intention to marry off their daughters to reduce the financial strain of supporting their family. Indeed, the economic conditions have significant ramifications here. According to recent data from the local administration, 16.59% of children in  West Nusa Tenggara are married, with a total of 1,132 cases (Dinas Pemberdayaan Perempuan Perlindungan Anak Pengendalian Penduduk dan Keluarga Berencana NTB, 2022).

Customary Practices

Child marriage is far from a novel phenomenon, but rather one that has been supported by local cultures and traditions predating independence. There exists a practice of kawin gantung within indigenous communities that has been practised for decades, which observes children being married via a religious ceremony, but only being allowed to cohabit after maturing. Child marriage in Indonesia is heavily rooted in customary practice, which eventually became customary law. Most customary practices in Indonesia are connected with Islamic Laws[5] (Otto, 2010). Some strict religious and customary practices force parents of teenage girls to marry off their daughters before they reach akil baligh or puberty. For example, in some areas of Indonesia, marrying daughters could be one of the solutions to pay the debt of gratitude (Madura), elevate the family status (Indramayu), and the result of perceiving their daughters as being mature enough to get married due to already having gotten their first menstruation (South Sulawesi). We can observe that strict religious and customary practices are one of the pervading forces spurring child marriage, and it does not stem from the agency of young girls implicated in the matter. 

Thus, child marriages can occur because people consider it part of their faith and “customary practice” in Indonesian society. Child marriage undeniably also occurs in urban and rural areas, but the numbers are bigger in poor rural areas. However, a critical factor explains why child marriage is more prevalent in poor rural areas than in the urban context: the lack of literacy and access to information, which are characteristic of the populations within the rural areas of Indonesia. 

Art by Kifurai.

In these areas, local or religious leaders usually serve as the nexus of information for the area, which can be problematic when one is confronted with the fact that they often have power and money over religious peer groups and mosques, allowing them to control cultural and religious authority (Cameron et al., 2020). We will explain further the relationship between community insularity and child marriage in the next section.

Another incentive for parents to feel intense pressure to marry off their daughters as soon as they reach puberty is the desire to prevent unwanted pregnancies (Kohno et al., 2020). Pregnancy in teen girls might have serious social consequences, especially for unmarried girls. Higher school dropout rates and lower educational attainment impede personal development and reduce women’s lifetime earnings and, thus, their contribution to economic growth. Pregnancies in unmarried girls can sometimes result in violence. Although reliable data on the scope of the problem is lacking, marriage is increasingly being recognised as the solution to maintain family honour (WHO Report, 2011).

Furthermore, several Indonesian customary practices are strikingly similar to the religious values shared by most Indonesians (Bemmelen & Grijns, 2018). For example, society believes it is a pamali or taboo thing for a parent to reject a marriage proposal from a man to a daughter. For decades, cultural and societal values have contributed to child marriage. In some rural areas, girls still unmarried at the age of 20 are considered to have strayed from local cultural and religious values and are thus ostracised (Chotim, 2019). There is, thus, significant societal pressure to be married early.

Lack of Education and Information 

As previously stated, child marriage is further facilitated by a lack of educational opportunities and limited access to information. According to the research findings by Windhani et al. (2022), Indonesia experiences high inequality in educational opportunities. Educational opportunities and access to information, such as current news and information accessibility, remain concentrated in Java. By contrast, South Sulawesi and West Nusa Tenggara are relatively low, with the average MYS[6] (mean years of schooling) being 9.09 percent per year, while the national rate is reaching 38 percent of total population. The education inequality negatively influences economic opportunity, which exacerbates poverty, which, as noted above,  correlates with child marriage (Climent, 2010).

For example, girls in villages in South Sulawesi and West Nusa Tenggara have fewer opportunities to receive proper education and information. They had no idea that marrying at such a young age would have such a large impact on their future lives because by becoming a wife, they could not make decisions in terms of education as they needed to get permission from their husband to pursue their study (Colfer et al., 2015). 

In addition, similar situations are also attached to their families and mothers who are unable to obtain educational opportunities. This results in an unbroken, vicious cycle which may lead young girls to believe that their entire identity and purpose are grounded in and solely defined by marriage, childbirth, and domestic housework will define their lives (Pradipta, 2021). 

A lack of information about the dangers of child marriage and opposing critical views to challenge the norm facilitate the preservation of traditional practices. This insulates said communities and results in an echo chamber where the ethics and morality of child marriage are never questioned—because what other reality is there?

The Role of the Pesantren

Child marriage is further exacerbated by pondok pesantren whose leaders take advantage of the situation to advance their religious agendas. While it is only a minority of these schools which engage in these unethical practices which go against the fundamental rights of the children, their role is particularly destructive, which suggests that we ought to draw attention to the select institutions that engage in the practice (Maulanasyah & Ahmad, 2023).

Parents affected by all the above—poverty undermining their ability to support their children, influence from customary and religious practices, and a lack of access to education and information—usually resort to placing their children, particularly daughters, in pondok pesantren, especially in the cases where their extended family is not able to care for the child (Srimulyani, 2007). This is even more likely to be the case if the parents in question have migrated to work in other countries. In South Sulawesi and West Nusa Tenggara, a pesantren presents itself as the logical choice as it offers low-cost boarding, is grounded in the religious and customary faith of the community, and offers the opportunity for an education. Often, these schools are founded or led by local religious leaders (kiyai or ustaz) who are trusted figures in the local community. 

It must be emphasised that pesantren are not inherently abusive. Most are closely aligned with the traditional Javanese education model,[7] which has a fairly diverse curriculum (Srimulyani, 2007). The  curriculum generally involves numerous combinations of classical Arabic grammar and Qur’anic studies, including memory, reading and interpretation programs, Islamic law, theology, and mysticism (Woodward, 2013). The author of this piece is herself a product of a pondok pesantren. However, some of the pesantren subscribe to a belief that child marriage is an important part of Islam. The author’s interviews in South Sulawesi and West Nusa Tenggara reveal that leaders of some pesantren in those areas actively promote child marriage using the content of the Quran and hadist. Meanwhile, the leaders did not read all of the Quran and hadist content, which may result in misinterpretation of meaning.

Art by Kifurai.

In both areas, the religious leaders (kiyai or ustaz) have the community’s trust and are highly influential in the local community. These pesantren leaders have a disproportionate amount of power in the community, which allows them to influence local economic development, the dynamics of local politics, and even relationships with mosques outside the pesantren.

According to the author’s in-depth interview with seven key informants, the kiyai or ustaz are the most prominent figures in those areas compared to other key figures (head of the village, karang taruna,[8] or even older people). Because of the power that pesantren figures wield, all village decisions must be approved by them. They also influence other mosques because the marbot[9] of the mosques also are graduates of their pesantren (LIPI, 2019). Their promotion of child marriage, then, is highly influential and effective due to their authority and position within the social hierarchy of these communities.

Those kiyai and ustaz from pesantren do not merely promote child marriage but play an important role in facilitating and legitimising the practice. They facilitate nikah siri (unofficial or unregistered marriage) involving at least one child, usually a girl (Chusnida & Anggriawan, 2022). Nikah siri is a marriage performed solely according to Islamic Law (Sharia) without being registered under State Marriage Law. The pesantren then assist the parents in retroactively applying for marriage dispensation under the Marriage Law because a religious marriage has already occurred. They prepare the necessary documents and legal assistance, guide the parents—often poor and/or illiterate—through the process, and use their extensive experience to shepherd it to completion. Out of their belief, the pesantren think they are doing a good religious practice when they actively promote, facilitate, and legalise child marriage in their communities. 

How Can We Stop Child Marriage in Indonesia?

While this explainer has focused on South Sulawesi and West Nusa Tenggara, it must be emphasised that this is a problem across the archipelago. For example, in 2008, a sheikh,[10] Pujiono Cahyo Widianto, the leader of the Miftahul Jannah Islamic boarding school in Semarang, Central Java, married a 12-year-old girl named Ulfa (Salenda, 2016). This case drew widespread attention because the sheikh was accused of heinous, egregious, and premeditated criminal behaviour. Many people, including Muslim progressive movements and organisations, questioned Sheikh Puji’s religious credentials and honorifics (NU, 2009). 

All of these cases show us that the mere act of governments or policymakers creating regulations is insufficient to engendering social change. In the case of child marriage, multiple other variables in the form of poverty and socio-cultural factors that contribute to preserving a bygone cultural “norm” no longer have a place in the modern world. Apart from enforcing the legislation, we must address these factors to eradicate child marriage in Indonesia.

So, what can be done to stop child marriage in Indonesia?

Poverty Alleviation in Rural Areas

Poverty significantly impacts people’s life choices in rural Indonesia, making them vulnerable. Many parents have chosen to become migrants to find another source of income, or they have married their daughters at a young age or enrolled them in low-cost boarding schools (pesantren). Alleviating poverty in this issue becomes critical because if there is a better livelihood opportunity, the number of child marriages could be reduced.

Equal Access to Education and Information

The key solution is literacy, education, and information sources for families and parents. These massive and troubling issues associated with child marriages can be avoided if small-scale environments (families) begin to gather information and become literate and educated. They may be able to handle their children’s education independently due to fulfilling their responsibility to shape their children’s character and behaviour. Families and parents are expected to play a significant role in the learning and teaching process as the first key figure for children; as primary caregivers, families or parents could observe and pay full attention to values and environment within boarding schools or pesantren before they send their children there.  

Art by Kifurai.

Active Social Outreach

Society plays an important role in every case of child marriage. Literate and educated members of society can take the lead in preventing child marriages by informing those who continue to encourage child marriage to minimise their actions. Reporting instances of child marriage to the appropriate authorities (for example, Komnas Anak at the regional or provincial level) could be an effective solution. Then, educating the surrounding communities about the dangers of child marriage for both girls and boys through engaging in outreach and activism may be an effective way to avoid this situation, as well as refusing to participate in any ceremonies or circumstances that encourage child marriage.

Stronger Collaboration Between Governmental Bodies and CSOs

As the decision maker, the government (through KemenPPA or Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection) faces a difficult task in resolving this matter. Furthermore, the government must strengthen communication and collaboration with other organisations that are actively advocating for this issue. Komnas Perempuan, LBH Apik, and religious institutions concerned with girls and women’s issues, such as Aisyah (a religious organisation affiliated with Muhammadiyah) and Nahdhatul Ulama women (an organisation under Nahdhatul Ulama religious group).

Cases of child marriage should serve as a wake-up call to everyone, especially girls who have always been victims of this. Child marriage may be detrimental to their potential, preventing them from obtaining an education and accessing better economic opportunities. Girls can break the cycle of poverty and intergenerational transmission of child marriage by avoiding child marriage. Families and parents, as primary caregivers, must also play an important role in reducing the number of cases of child marriage in Indonesia, particularly in rural areas. 

Footnotes
  1. Antara, February 2023. https://en.antaranews.com/news/273804/minister-stresses-need-for-collaboration-to-reduce-child-marriage-rate 
  2. Explanation of marriage dispensation by courts:
    http://www.pa-pulangpisau.go.id/artikel-pengadilan/1710-dispensasi-nikah
    https://pa-banjarnegara.go.id/v2/135-artikel-peradilan/578-dispensasi-nikah-bagai-makan-buah-simalakama-catatan-akhir-tahun-2022; The court rulings: https://putusan3.mahkamahagung.go.id/direktori/index/kategori/dispensasi-nikah-1.html 
  3. A low income district is defined as an area that has a high level of poverty, with poor people comprising more than 10% of the total population (Sabar et al, 2022). 
  4. Interview conducted by the researcher in November 2019.
  5. The Republic of Indonesia has a population of approximately 270 million people. It is the world’s most populous Muslim country. Muslims – primarily Sunnis – make up 86 per cent of the population. Other recognised religions are Protestantism (6%), Roman Catholicism (3%), Hinduism (2%), and Buddhism (1%). The majority of Muslims put a high belief in Islamic values which then applied and mixed to their customary practices It then created Islamic Law or Sharia Law.
  6. Mean years of schooling (MYS) means the average number of completed years of education of a country’s population aged 25 years and older, excluding years spent repeating individual grades.
  7. “Pondok Pesantren” is derived from Javanese. “Pondok” (“mondok”) refers to living in a religiously run boarding school. The pondok pesantren tradition is thought to have originated in the 13th century. Java was the first area in Indonesia to establish a boarding educational system. This situation was inextricably linked to the widespread spread of Islam in Java during the stake of Walisongo in Nusantara (Indonesia).
  8. “Karang Taruna” refers to the youth movement in a village or sub-village.
  9. “Marbot” refers to a mosque manager.
  10. “Sheikhs” among the Indonesian muslim society refers to old men who lead a group of jamaah and are claimed to be experts in Islamic values.
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