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Ending Child Marriage In Indonesia: Fulfilling The Promise Of The Sustainable Development Goals

Due to its population size, Indonesia ranks among the ten countries in the world and one of the highest in the Southeast Asia and Pacific region with the highest occurrences of child brides.

The 25 August 2016 will mark the 26th year since Indonesia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) through Presidential Decree Number 36 Year 1990. While the country has made significant progress to implement the CRC, there are serious challenges still remaining. One of the recently discussed topics is on child marriage, which has been a growing campaign led by organisations on all levels.

Child Marriage in Indonesia: Statistics, the Law and Its Consequences

Due to its population size, Indonesia ranks among the ten countries in the world and one of the highest in the Southeast Asia and Pacific region with the highest occurrences of child brides. A research by the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) and UNICEF reported that more than a sixth of girls married before reaching 18, or around 340,000 girls annually. They also reported occurrences of under-15 marriages, many were unregistered or they got registered as aged over 16.

While the Convention on the Rights of the Child defined children as persons under the age of 18 years, which was the same definition on the Law Number 23 Year 2002 on Child Protection, Indonesia's 1974 Marriage Law sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 19 for males and 16 for females. The law also allows younger age to marry if the parents gain permission from the court or marriage officer -- in 2012, there were 9,632 cases of dispensation requests. However, a great move backwards to protect children's rights happened when in 2015, the Indonesian Constitutional Court rejected a judicial review request to raise the legal marriageable age for girls from 16 to 18 years. In its ruling, the Constitutional Court noted that considering the progress of technology, nutrition, freedom to information that may speed up a child's sexual drive, it should be channelled through legal marriage as ruled by religion to prevent children born out of wedlock. The Court also stated there is no guarantee that increasing the child marriageable age would fix the problems of divorce, health and other social problems. The only dissenting opinion came from Maria Farida Indrati, the only female in the panel of judges, citing the harm of child marriages and the importance of the country's obligation to protect, fulfil and respect children's rights.

Child marriage violates women and children's rights. The arguments for banning child marriages include its health risks such as early pregnancy risks, childbirth complications and socioeconomic risks such as increased poverty, patriarchal traditions and gender-based discrimination and inequality. Considering the high rate of child marriages, it is no surprise that Indonesia is facing high levels of maternal and infant mortality. Based on the Indonesian Demographic and Health Survey (IDHS) 2012, 10 per cent of women aged 15-19 have started childbearing. Worsen by limited access to health services, the maternal mortality rate in Indonesia is 190 per 100,000 live births. The harmful consequences emphasise the importance of eliminating child marriage in Indonesia. In addition to that, following the recent issues on child sexual offences in the country, prohibiting child marriages is also crucial to ban the legalisation of sexual activities with underage children through the institution of marriage.

Tackling Structural and Social Issues

Child marriages are driven by several factors, including poverty and the belief that child marriage offers protection and reduces economic burden, as well as social reasons such as protection from premarital sexual activity, sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies. In Indonesia, it occurs mostly in rural areas. The five provinces with highest rate of child marriage are West Sulawesi, Papua, Central Sulawesi, West Papua, and Southern Sulawesi. These provinces have the prevalence of 50,000 under-15 marriages annually. Reflecting from the demographics, consequently we need not only to ban child marriage, but also to ensure that girls everywhere across Indonesia have an equal access to education, health, employment and other services. Eliminating child marriage in Indonesia needs equitable strategies that would give girls an opportunity to access sustainable livelihoods. Following the Constitutional Court ruling, we need to explore the many ways to end child marriage and link them to a wide range of social issues.

There are various ways to help end child marriage and it needs commitments and coordination between the whole communities and societies. It is thus important to shift the sociocultural attitudes amongst parents, teachers, religious leaders who hold conservative views and approve child marriage through social and educational interventions. Furthermore, the 2012 IDHS noted the relationship between early childbearing and education, where teenagers with no education had begun childbearing in far greater numbers than those with secondary education. Thus, the Government needs to increase female enrolment in education and employment. One of the ways to cut child marriage is through programmes to build the girls' life-skills and knowledge that would elevate their status in the family and community. It is also crucial to utilise secondary schools as a medium for interventions - unfortunately, it is often reported that pregnant teenagers are banned from enrolling in schools. The Government also needs to work with community stakeholders and through mass media campaigns to raise awareness on the dangers of child marriage. Moreover, since early marriage often occurs in rural areas with high rates of poverty, we need adequate public programmes to empower them economically. Recognising that government's resources are limited, plans and actions may be phased over some period of years.

In light of Indonesia's ratification of the CRC, we need to remind ourselves that a large proportion of Indonesia's future generation are trapped in a poor socioeconomic situation and there are obligations and responsibilities to guarantee their human rights. In the legal context, the House of Representatives must immediately revise the outdated 1974 Marriage Law to guarantee women and children's rights. Furthermore, if President Joko Widodo is to maintain commitment to children's rights and to fulfil the promises of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is important for the Government to take continuous and progressive actions to shift the social and cultural attitudes legitimising the child marriage practice.