Jakarta. In many parts of rural Indonesia where child marriage is still considered a viable option, it remains a challenge to establish open communication between those involved, which is crucial to changing mindsets and ending the practice.
For Dwi Ayu Pratiwi, who saw many of her classmates getting married at a young age, changing parents' mindsets is key to stopping child marriage.
However, that in itself is no easy task, especially when strong cultural norms on adult-child relations favor the former. To avoid being labeled disobedient, many children refrain from voicing their doubts or disagreement, even when it comes to crucial decisions.
"Most of the time, parents tell us that we must not be disobedient or confrontational. But I think it's better to be engaged in a discussion, so the child can be more open and communicative with her parents," Dwi told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview.
A study found that 32 percent of married women between the ages of 20 and 24 in her village in Sukabumi district, West Java, got married before they were 18 years old.
According to an article based on the study, published in January 2016 in Jurnal Perempuan, Indonesia's first feminist academic journal, "this is slightly higher than the provincial data, which stood at 26 percent in 2015. It is higher compared with the national data on marriage before 18, which is 23 percent."
The study formed part of ongoing doctoral research by the Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
The study looked at child marriage in Sukabumi and the role of girls' agency towards parents or elders in such situations and highlighted that gender and age are "crosscutting hierarchies with girls at the most powerless side of the equation."
"In the village, your silence is perceived as agreement … Sometimes young girls may be afraid of being labeled disobedient, or they lack good communication skills to discuss the matter with their parents," said Navita Hani, field coordinator at the Java Village Foundation, which was established in 2007 to focus on improving the lives of vulnerable communities, especially women and young people, in West Java.
Lack of Bargaining Power
According to Navita, a strong tradition of child marriage and a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture contribute to the high prevalence of child marriage in Dwi's village.
"The women are not in a position to bargain when they get married," Navita said.
In addition, many villagers also consider marriage the best option to avoid extramarital sex, or zina.
Since many girls enter into religious marriages, or nikah siri, such unions are not registered with the government. A comparison between the 2016 research findings and official data shows that child marriages are often unreported.
Indonesia's 1974 Marriage Law sets the legal marriageable age at 21, but with parental consent girls as young as 16 are allowed to marry, whereas the minimum age for boys is 19. However, there is an exemption allowing girls as young as 13 to legally marry with parental consent and judicial approval.
According to the 2016 article, which featured six of 28 qualitative case studies, some girls were only 14 years old when they got married.
The case studies showed that various factors, including religion, poverty and pressure from parents and neighbors, contribute to the continuing practice.
"Besides parents, there's also pressure from the community. In some cases, the parents feel they have to marry off their girls or boys to avoid gossip by neighbors, or the fear of zina," Java Village Foundation chairwoman Mies Grijns told the Jakarta Globe. Grijns is also an external doctoral researcher at the Van Vollenhoven Institute.
Navita said the pursuit of education is not encouraged in the village and that most respondents in the case studies either did not complete primary school, or ended their education at that stage.
"Many parents don't consider education as important. They think that even without education, their kids can still go to work and their daughters can be married off," Navita said.
Dwi, who is now 19 years old, told the Jakarta Globe that there were fewer girls in her class when she entered middle school compared with when she was in primary school. She added that there were even fewer by the time she entered high school.
"[Our] parents think, why should we go to school for so long? Especially girls. At the end of the day, won't we just spend time in the kitchen anyway?" Dwi said.
As part of its work in the village, the Java Village Foundation recognizes that youth empowerment is crucial to resolving some of the ongoing issues and that this would also change people's mindsets, which is key to ending the practice of child marriage.
The Java Village Foundation plans to launch a learning center in Dwi's village later this year to empower and support the local youth – those between the ages of 12 and 24 – and encourage them to actively participate in the community.
In preparation for the program launch, the foundation has been holding monthly meetings and discussions, and it is currently creating training courses that will form part of the learning center's regular activities.
Navita said the meetings address youth-related issues, including reproductive health, drugs and bullying.
"By involving the youth, the learning center aims to foster a sense of ownership in the community and create a support system that respects children's rights," she said.
She added that the village youth has been enthusiastic about the program, a sentiment echoed by Dwi.
"The learning center can guide us through training, which will be important to shape our skills and help us find work later," Dwi said.
However, there is not one single solution to ending child marriage, Grijns said.
"It really needs to be contextualized. Listening to adolescents is a crucial step, but there are many more actors that deal with child marriage," she said.
As a small foundation, Java Village carries out its mission through cooperation with civil society, including teachers, youth leaders, the village administration and staff at the local community health center, or puskesmas.
The foundation is also planning to engage village officials and religious leaders in the community to raise collective awareness of the issue of child marriage.
"There's a strong religious tradition in the village, and religious figures have the power to legitimize child marriage, so that's one of the challenges we plan to tackle by engaging these figures," Navita said.