World: Indonesia raises minimum age for marriages in a bid to end child brides

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“I had my first child at 14, a little boy, and I was destroyed,” Indonesian woman Rasminah, who goes by one name, told the ABC.

Key points:

  • The legal age to marry in Indonesia has been raised to 19
  • However, activists say there are still cultural issues which remain unaddressed
  • Indonesia has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world

Rasminah, from a village in West Java, calls herself a survivor of child marriages — by the time she was 30 she had been married off by her parents four times.

“My dreams were just to go to school and play, but I couldn’t. I was married and had to care for a child,” she said.

“You can’t even imagine how that felt for me.”

She said she was first forced to marry after graduating from primary school at just 13 for “economic reasons” — her father had recently become disabled, and her mother had to take care of her three siblings.

“I still remember my mother said to me that I was no longer in primary school now and I should just get married, so someone can make sure I’m fed and bring rice to the table,” she said.

Rasminah, her husband and son.

PHOTO: Rasminah is now happily married to her fourth husband. (Supplied: Rasminah)

“The first time I met [my former husband] was at a neighbour’s wedding, they pointed and told me to go with him.”

Her former husband was 27 years old. They soon married, and a year later she gave birth to her son.

Now with five children to separate marriages, she said she finally gathered the courage to share her story in order to change the country’s marriage laws.

Child marriage ’emergency’

In Indonesia, one in nine children under the age of 18 are married, or 11.2 per cent, from a total of 79.6 million children across the country, according to 2018 figures from the Indonesian bureau of statistics.

A traditional Javanese wedding ceremony

PHOTO: Cultural beliefs play a significant role in marriages in Indonesia. (Wikimedia commons: Oyonraiman)

Indonesia has one of the highest ratesof child marriages in the world, according to a 2016 report by UNICEF — a situation which has been labelled as “emergency”.

Earlier this month, Indonesia’s Parliament revised its national laws to increase the legal age a girl can marry after years of pressure from advocacy groups.

The amendment to the Marriage Act raised the age of marriage for girls to 19, in line with the legal age for boys, with parental permission.

The legal age for men and women to marry without parental consent is 21.

‘More vulnerable to domestic violence’

A screengrab of an Indonesian news story shows a young couple.

PHOTO: Factors which place a child at the risk of marriage include poverty and religious beliefs. (Supplied: TribunNews)

Naila Zakiah, an Indonesian women’s rights activist who lobbied for the changes, said girls who were married young were left in a “vulnerable position to become victims of domestic violence”.

“They have to quit school, and are more [likely] to have sexual and reproductive health problems,” she said.

Endang, an Indonesian woman from West Java who goes by one name, also petitioned for the changes.

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She was forced to marry a 37-year-old man when she was 14.

“It still scars me to this day … I felt so tortured and trapped,” she said.

“Every time I made a mistake in taking care of the household or his child, he would be rough, insult me and tell me I was stupid.”

She said it took courage for her to divorce her husband the following year, because she “didn’t even know what a marriage meant, let alone a divorce”.

‘My suffering has not gone to waste’

Rasminah, Endang and a fellow survivor of child marriage in Indonesia's constitutional court.

PHOTO: Rasminah and Endang both advocated for the changes in the laws. (Supplied: Rasminah)

While the new laws are a step in the right direction, they are not enough to stamp out systemic national issues, according to Ms Zakiah.

The changes now allow the courts to hear the child’s opinion of whether they are ready to marry. Previously, it was purely the parents’ decision.

However, parents can still file a petition to local and religious courts which can grant “special circumstances” to bypass the laws and marry their underage children.

UNICEF explained that there were many factors which place a child at risk of marriage, including poverty, religious norms which condone the practice, and the perception that marriage will provide protection.

These aspects remain unaddressed in the current laws and will be a challenge to monitor at a regional level, Ms Zakiah said.

Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God

Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God

Advocates say the Christian church in Australia is not just failing to sufficiently address domestic violence, but is enabling and concealing it.

“Religion and cultural practices play big role in this case,” she said, adding that two religious parties rejected the raising of the legal age.

“During the debate in [Indonesia’s] constitutional court hearing and in the legislative process, moral and religious arguments were dominant.

“That’s why the clause which still allows parents to marry their kids is still in the law.”

However for Rasminah, who is “thrilled” with the changes in the laws, it has still made a big impact on her daughter’s future.

“I don’t want her to go through what I have … It means my suffering has not gone to waste,” she said.