Commentary: Indonesia Swims Against the Tide on Child Marriage

Students need better protection from sexual assault when they're doing an internship. (Antara Photo/Prasetyo Utomo)

By : Heather Barr | on 1:21 PM July 19, 2015
Category : Opinion, Commentary, Featured

In recent years, one of the bright spots on women’s rights globally has been growing awareness of how harmful child marriage is — and increasing efforts by countries around the world to end it. Sadly, not in Indonesia.

The Constitutional Court missed a chance last month to help the millions – yes, millions – of Indonesian girls who are marrying as children, under the age of 18. Indonesia’s 1974 Marriage Law permits women and men to marry as they choose once they reach 21, but allows girls to marry at 16 with parental permission. Boys must wait until they are 19 to marry with parental permission.

Because a large proportion of marriages in Indonesia are arranged by parents, the parental permission exception doesn’t protect girls, but instead establishes the age at which many are forced to marry. According to Unicef, 17 percent of girls in Indonesia are married before they reach 18. Three percent of girls marry before 15.

Six Indonesian women’s rights activists — Indri Oktaviani, Yohana Tantiana, Dini Anitasari, Sa’baniah, Hidayatut Thoyyibah, Ramadhaniati — along with the Children Human Rights Foundation (YPHA) asked the court to rule that no girl could marry before 18. They argued that the law violates rights guaranteed by the Indonesian constitution, discriminates against women and violates Indonesia’s international obligations.

In an 8-to-1 vote, the judges rejected the petition, upholding the 1974 Marriage Law’s provisions on age. They wrote that there “was no guarantee that with increasing the age from 16 to 18 there will be a reduction of divorce rates, health improvements and reduction of other social problems.”

There is overwhelming evidence that child marriage has devastating consequences for girls. Such unions often result in early pregnancy, which carries serious health risks — including death — for both mothers and babies. Married girls are unlikely to stay in school, and more likely to live in poverty. They’re also more likely than women who marry at a later age to face domestic violence.

The court’s ruling should not be the end of this story.

Indonesia is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under these core human rights conventions, Indonesia is legally obligated to protect the rights of girls and women, including the right to be free from discrimination, to the highest attainable standard of health, to education, to free and full consent to marriage, to choose one’s spouse, and to be free from physical, mental, and sexual violence. The current marriage law violates these rights.

Yohama Yembise, the minister of women’s empowerment and child protection in the government of President Joko Widodo, has spoken out against the court’s ruling. Her ministry should work with activists to draft legislation to reform the 1974 Marriage Law, setting 18 as the minimum age of marriage. The president should support this reform.

Indonesia’s House of Representatives should also get involved in this important issue and support administration reforms setting the age of marriage at 18. But if Joko's government proves unwilling to act, the House should take the lead.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling should not be seen as a defeat for ending child marriage in Indonesia. Instead, it should galvanize the Joko government, the House and Indonesian activists to work together not only to change the law, but to change public thinking about how best to protect Indonesia’s girls.

Heather Barr is a senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.

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