The drizzle wets the streets around Sukaria in Tamamaung Sub-District, Makassar, Sulawesi. Hawkers move around selling snacks like green bananas, crispy puffs, spring rolls, iced fruit cocktail and fritters. They carry their wares through streets crowded with passersby.
The rain makes the sky dark. I drive around a small turn in the road and stop near to the local mosque. I’m met by Sri Dewi Permai, a 15-year-old whose wedding plans had been cancelled last month; not because she refused, but because the man’s family disappeared. “So I kept quiet too. But thank God I didn’t get married,” she says.
She had a lucky escape, but child marriages aren’t uncommon in this area. On 23 April 2018, 15-year-old Fitrah and 17-year-old Syamsuddin married in a ceremony witnessed by the village chief and close family members in Bantaeng District, about four hours from Makassar. When Syamsuddin’s mother proposed that she become her daughter-in-law, Fitrah couldn’t refuse. Her mother had passed on, and her father worked as a construction labourer—marriage, for Fitrah, was a promise of financial security. “Syam’s mother came to see my grandmother. She agreed. I also agreed,” she tells New Naratif.
Three years before Fitrah’s nuptials, across the sea on the island of Kodingareng Lompo, 15-year-old Winda was married to a partner chosen by her family. They now live in a small house looking out over the water, where they can see the glow of the lights from Makassar. How does it feel to be married? “Ha ha ha, normal. And funny,” she says.
These teenagers are walking a long road. This is their story, and probably the story of thousands of children in Indonesia.
Life on Kodingareng
According(link in Bahasa Indonesia) to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2016, 17% of children in Indonesia were married before the age of 18. The Indonesia Demographic Health Survey states that one in four girls are married between the ages of 15 and 19. The highest percentage of child marriages (37%) come from West Sulawesi; South Sulawesi, where Fitrah, Syamsuddin and Winda live, ranks at number eight with 30.5%. In 2017, some 11,000 school children failed to take their national exams because they were married—80% of them were girls.
I sip hot tea on a night in May 2018 at Winda’s house. The night air is warm, and the courtyard is full of white sand from the beach. There’s no wind, but the waves crash into the hulls of moored boats.
Winda never finished elementary school; she only made it to the third grade, leaving school at nine years of age. Her father passed away, and she’d been taken care of by her mother and grandmother. She shows off her gold earrings, a gift from her husband when they married. “My mother said, ‘If it was down to me, you would never get the chance to wear that gold’, so I never take it off,” she says.
Life is very different on Kodingareng Lompo—a 14-hectare island of 4,500 souls—from the hustle and bustle of urban Indonesia. The houses are huddled together with almost no gaps between them; the roofs of the houses touch each other. Entertainment on this island consists of hanging out at the Playstation rental shop, or going to the tip of the island, near the lighthouse, to watch the sunset. One can also drive around the island in a pedicab, which costs IDR1,000 (USD0.069) per person.
“In the beginning, when he [my husband] came to get to know my family, I always hid under the bed, I didn’t want to meet him,” Winda says. “But after a while I met him too. And I started to like him. So I got married. Many people said my husband wouldn’t be able to provide for me. But I was already convinced.”
“When I first got married, it felt strange because we still lived at Grandma’s house. But now we have our own place. I enjoy it,” she adds.
The officer at the civil registry fudged her age on official documents when she got married. “So now my identity card says I was born in 1999, so that I’m 19, ha ha ha,” she laughs.
Winda’s husband, Mustamar, was born in 1984 and works as a fisherman. He usually looks for sunu fish using a small boat called a lepa-lepa, but will sometimes work on a larger boat depending on the season. Like most people on Kodingareng Lompo, he doesn’t have a stable income.
There’s a primary school and a junior school on the island; they’re both owned by the government and free to attend. The high school, though, is privately run and charges a fee, so most teenagers stop at junior school.
The boys then become fishermen, while the girls stay at home and help their families. Even though Makassar is fairly close, most families don’t bother sending their children to high school there. “It’s hard if girls are taken to Makassar. It’s hard to watch them closely. On this island they are very free,” is the reply to New Naratif’s questions.
A long tradition
I first came to Kodingareng in 2011, when my partner Sartika and I started a literacy and sex education class on the island. We met dozens of teenagers eager to learn. We held discussions at home, on the beach and in the classroom. Winda was part of our class, as were Rina and Narti, who were married in 2015 when they were 18.
Narti is now pregnant with her second child. Rina, too, has children. School is little more than a memory; it’s often considered a burden on Kodingareng, where some people feel that they are “less able on the economic side”. Little of daily life has changed between my first visit in 2011 till today: hawkers still sell snacks from morning until night. An average person will need between IDR50,000 (USD3.47) and IDR200,000 (USD 13.87) to get by. It’s not impossible to earn this amount on the island, but when it comes to spending it, education might not be the top priority.
It’s impossible to ignore the economic angle, and the reality on the island is that daughters are seen as burdens that need to be got rid of quickly. Arranging a marriage involves around IDR20 million (USD1,386) for a dowry known as panai—money that, in Bugis [an ethnic group from South Sulawesi] and Makassar traditions, is paid from the groom to the bride.
The reality on the island is that daughters are seen as burdens that need to be got rid of quickly
Andi Ima Kesuma, an anthropologist at Universitas Negeri Makassar, says that there’s a long history of marrying young in South Sulawesi. In the book Migration and the Bugis People, she wrote that the Bugis nobility from Wajo travelled to Singapore and Malaysia for trade. These early settlers formed a strong colony that helped to contribute to the financial prosperity of Johor in Malaysia, but the large-scale migration was later curbed after the Dutch East India Company arrived on the scene in 1669 and restricted both the Bugis’ movement and trade activities in east Indonesia.
Following this, the Bugis travelled and traded mostly around Kalimantan, Melaka and other parts of the Malay Peninsula in the 16th and 17th centuries. “At that time, some of the traders who had daughters who were already menstruating would arrange for them to be married to close family,” Ima says. “This method was used to relieve the worry of daughters being left behind. And most importantly, to keep hold of family wealth so that it didn’t go to anyone else.” And so child marriage became an established phenomenon in Bugis culture.
“I found a lot of pictures from the olden days in Malaysia or Singapore of the Bugis people. The girls got married when they were 12 or 13 years old. That was considered reasonable in those days,” she says.
There has, however, been a shift in perspective. In traditional Bugis society, family homes are seen as the property of the woman; when a man seeks a woman’s hand in marriage, he was expected to give her a paddy field or garden to guarantee a source of income even if the marriage falls apart.
It’s different now; today, parents think of marriage as a way to shift the financial burden of raising a daughter to someone else. “Today, lots of people understand that if women have home ownership, then the wife also has to cook, wash the dishes and clean the house. Of course that’s wrong. It’s the same as making the woman a maid,” says Ima.
Physical risks and mental maturity
Maisuri T. Chalid, an obstetrician from Hasanuddin University in Makassar, says that those who marry at a young age have a higher risk of cervical cancer. Research published in the British Journal of Cancer shows that, when compared to women who have their first sexual intercourse at the age of 21 or above, women who had their first sexual encounter between the ages of 17–20 years were 1.8 times more likely to have cervical cancer; women who had their first sexual encounter at the age of 16 and below were 2.31 times more likely to get cervical cancer.
There are also risks when it comes to having children. According to the 2014 population census, Indonesia has a maternal mortality rate—which refers to the number of maternal deaths—of 305 per 100,000 live births. “This number is very high, the highest among other ASEAN countries,” Maisuri wrote in a piece for The Conversation(link in Bahasa Indonesia).
Getting married at a young age, Maisuri says, puts a strain on the maturity of the reproductive organs. There can often be difficulties or complications during childbirth if the mother’s pelvic bones are still immature, for example. Incidences of preeclampsia [hypertension in pregnancy]—one of the direct causes of the high maternal mortality rate in the country—are also usually higher in young or first-time mothers and first pregnancies.
Physical maturity isn’t the only concern: child-rearing is a stressful experience that requires both knowledge and education. If young mothers aren’t ready or mature enough to cope, there risks of postpartum depression increase and impact both mother and child.
“From the time in the womb until the age of two, this determines the quality of life of the child,” Maisuri says. “If this phase is not managed well, then we can just imagine how the next generation will be moving forward.”
The wedding of two children
On the road to Calendu River in Letta Village, Bantaeng District, Syamsuddin shook hands with district head Syarif Hidayat. The Surah Alfatihah [the first chapter of the Quran] and the Shahada [the Muslim declaration in the belief of the oneness of God] were said. Then the sacred words of the marriage ceremony were uttered, and Fitrah and Syamsuddin were man and wife.
The marriage of these two teenagers became a talking point in Bantaeng. There were almost two months between the unofficial wedding reception and the official marriage ceremony, because the Office of Religious Affairs (KUA) in Bantaeng had issued a letter objecting to the marriage because Fitrah was only 15 years old.
The KUA based their position on the Indonesian Marriage Law of 1974, which states that the legal age to marry, with parental consent, is 19 for men and 16 for women. It was a turn of events that Syamsuddin’s aunt Nurlina found puzzling; like on Kodingareng, child marriage is common in Bantaeng. The family had not expected any opposition, and the invitations had already been sent out. They stood firm, and the KUA eventually allowed them to put in a request to the religious court for a dispensation.
If there is no coercion found, and the two candidates say they like each other, then dispensation will be granted and the couple allowed to marry, regardless of age, with permission from both families
The couple had two hearings at the Bantaeng Religious Court, with witnesses from both the bride and groom’s families. Dispensation hearings are common in Sulawesi, and are usually swift processes. If there is no coercion found, and the two candidates say they like each other, then dispensation will be granted and the couple allowed to marry, regardless of age, with permission from both families.
Fitrah and Syamsuddin were also required to take a bridal course at the KUA alongside 11 other couples. The day-long course was filled with advice and lectures on topics such as how wives should treat husbands as the head of the family, and how women should obey their spouses.
I look at Fitrah once the marriage ceremony is over, and remind her that she’s following in the footsteps of her parents, who were also married very young. She’s not fazed. “The most important thing is to be patient. If we go through this together, insya allah we should be happy,” she says.
Conservative and puritan attitudes also push young people into wedlock. A Bantaeng local—who doesn’t want to be named—tells me the story of how his brother ended up getting married last year. “He was caught sitting with a woman on Seruni Beach, and some members of the woman’s family saw them. Then they reported them,” he says.
“The next day, the woman’s family came to the house. They asked for them to be married. If they refused, then the boy’s family would have to pay IDR35 million (USD2,427). My brother didn’t want to, but rather than waste money, my family forced him to get married.”
“My brother didn’t want to, but rather than waste money, my family forced him to get married.”
I meet Hartuti, the secretary of the Indonesian Women’s Coalition Branch in Bantaeng and head of the Bonto Tiro Village where Syamsuddin lives. “We can’t say anything [if children get married here]. It has already happened. This is about preventing children from committing zina [sex before marriage],” she says.
But things don’t always end happily. Indriana (not her real name) had an arranged marriage in Makassar when she was 17. “Getting married is not a solution… I found it hard to be married. It’s not just about a foundation of love, it’s also [a] mental [state],” she tells New Naratif.
In 2007, Indriana married an officer in the Indonesian military who was 13 years her senior. She’d only just graduated from high school. “I actually had a boyfriend at that time, but my parents didn’t agree. They wanted someone from the military,” she says.
The civil ceremony took place with great fanfare, but then things started to go wrong. Not long after the reception, three women reported her husband to the military attaché—one claimed she had married the man in a religious ceremony (nikah siri), another accused him of sexual abuse. Indriana’s husband wound up in a military prison.
It was a stressful time for Indriana. Her husband was still behind bars when she gave birth to their first child, and was only released when the child was six months old. As her husband had been discharged from the military, the family eventually moved to another city in search of work.
It was supposed to be a happy dream of marital bliss, but Indriana says things never turned out that way. “I was never respected. At that time, it was just the two of us. I was only used to satisfy his lust. If he was angry, he could stay silent for a month,” she says. “He’d call me a cry baby, and made me feel like I had no self worth.”
Their second child, a boy, was born in 2011. Their marriage ended in that same year, and the baby was formally registered as the child of Indriana’s parents. “That’s what is so hard and complicated. If I remember all of that, I feel so stupid [for imagining my marriage would have a fairytale ending].”
I asked Indriana to think of a word that would describe her life. She chose “trauma”.
She’s trying to move on with her life, but still feels some apprehension. “Now I have a boyfriend. We’ve been together for more than four years. But I’m still scared of getting married,” she says.
“As a divorcee with two children, if I can raise my children on my own, then why not? I’m still scared if I imagine having a formal bond.”
Caught in a cycle
Marriage, even at a young age, is sometimes seen as an escape from a bad situation, such as domestic violence. But young people can get caught in a loop of abuse instead. “This is what a child experiences: getting married to escape violence, without being conscious that they’re entering a new cycle of violence instead,” says Mulyani Hasan, a child marriage prevention researcher from Rumah Kita Bersama, an organisation that works to tackle discrimination in Indonesia at the intersections of gender, disability, religion or ethnicity.
A consistent legal basis to regulate underage marriages is necessary to break this cycle, Mulyani says. “So far, we’ve practiced a kind of legal dualism. There are a number of cases of religious weddings, which are not recognised in state law. But if those couples get divorced, then the processing is done through state channels,” she says. “It’s so weird and ambiguous.”
Marriage, even at a young age, is sometimes seen as an escape from a bad situation, such as domestic violence. But young people can get caught in a loop of abuse instead
Luckily, some young people in Sulawesi find happier endings. Sri Dewi Permai, the 15-year-old who meets me on that wet day in Sukaria, has escaped her proposed marriage. Her grandmother had been ill, and wanted to see Dewi married, and she felt as if she could not refuse.
The impending marriage weighed on her mind. “If it was 10 o’clock at night, I was supposed to be asleep. But I would be constantly thinking… it was like extreme stress,” she says.
“When you get married, you can’t go out anymore. My friends would go to school and I knew I would have to wake up and sweep the house… I was scared to think about sleeping together. What would that bring? It was weird to think about.”
As her grandmother began to get better, Dewi opened up and voiced her fears. “My mother came home from Kalimantan. She asked me if I was ready to get married. I said I wasn’t yet, and that I wanted to go to school.”
Dewi felt ashamed about her misgivings. Her grandmother and mother had already accepted the proposal on her behalf, and all the neighbours knew about it. But the marriage plan eventually fell apart when the other party failed to show before the ceremony. Now, Dewi is more cheerful. She has a boyfriend, too; they met through Instagram.
“If your boyfriend came and proposed to you, would you want to get married?” I ask her.
She pauses for a moment, then smiles. “Not yet. Let’s just see what happens.”
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Regional Editor, Deputy Editor for Bahasa Indonesia, and Consulting Editor for North Sumatra. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at email@example.com.