Group Petitions to End Early Marriage in Indonesia

JANUARY 21, 2015

A local grassroots group is leading a petition to raise the minimum age of marriage. Over 22 million boys and girls aged 10-14 in Indonesia are married, posing significant risks to their health and development. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

Jakarta. Under Indonesian law, the minimum age of marriage for girls is a tender 16 years; for boys, the minimum is 19.

Because of this age disparity and the dangerously low age requirement for teen girls, young women in Indonesia face health risks that range from complications in pregnancy to gender-based violence, both of which can — and all too frequently do — result in death.

Nationwide, 6 percent of boys and 13.7 percent of girls aged 15-19 are already married, according to the Central Statistics Agency's (BPS) 2010 census. Data from the Ministry of Health’s 2013 National Basic Health Research Survey (Riskesdas), though, found that 42 percent of adolescent women aged 15-19 had been married. The 2010 census also found that more than 22 million Indonesian girls and boys aged 10-14 were already married, with the proportion evenly split between the genders.

This practice persists despite the official age requirements due to a loophole that permits families to circumvent the marriage law if they grant their permission — effectively rendering it moot. It’s common enough in some areas to raise concerns among public health officials.

Girls aged 10 to 15 are at five times greater risk of death in pregnancy — and those aged 16 to 19 at a twice greater risk — compared to women aged 20 to 25, according to a 2013 white paper commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Although just 1.9 percent of women 
and girls in Indonesia say their ideal age for having their first child is 19 years or younger, according to BPS' 2012 Indonesian Demographic Health Survey, the same survey found that 9.5 percent of teen girls had given birth or were pregnant, suggesting we should be alarmed for their health, rights and preparation for marriage.

Births in early marriage contribute to the nation’s worsening maternal mortality ratio: for every 100,000 live births, an 
estimated 359 women and girls die during their pregnancy, according to the 2012 IDHS. That’s a 
significant increase from 2007, when the figure stood at 223.

Tellingly, the same survey found that fewer than 10 percent of never-married girls and boys between the ages of 15 and 19 had been exposed to messages in the media urging them to postpone marriage.

A grassroots movement that calls itself Koalisi 18+ (Coalition 18+) is dedicated to increasing Indonesia’s minimum age of marriage and strengthening enforcement to eradicate early and coerced marriages.

“Inexperienced and vulnerable young brides are not physically, mentally and emotionally ready for marriage and pregnancy, as they are still at a crucial age of development,” said Anggara, one of Koalisi 18+’s founders. “Early marriages deprive girls of 
educational opportunities and their 
fundamental rights. They perpetuate a vicious cycle of poverty and death, with teens forced to give birth to infants and raise families without proper knowledge and access to health services.”

Koalisi 18+ has started an online 
petition on to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls 18-years-old, the same age it also seeks to set for adolescent boys. The petition has so far gathered 13,000 signatures and counting, just 1,000 shy of the group’s goal before submitting it plans to submit its petition to the Constitutional Court in an effort to revise the law.

“Public awareness of girls’ rights, welfare and equality has to be promoted, as well as the importance of them reaching their full potential for themselves, their children and the country,” Anggara said. “Laws alone cannot provide the solution.”

Since its founding last July, Koalisi 18+ has been busy with social media 
campaigns such as #stopperkawinananak and #aksi2015 on Twitter, empowering women through education and seminars. Koalisi 18+ also works with other groups such as Yayasan Kesehatan Perempuan (Women’s Health Foundation).

Due to conservative religious beliefs, cultural conceptions, family shame and honor, economics, poor education and sexual taboos, early marriages and 
pregnancies have become a dangerous tradition passed on across generations.

“Nothing positive can come from 
early marriages,” said Koalisi 18+ campaign manager Reza Gardi. 
 “Marriage should be a beautiful chapter that is experienced by one’s own voluntary choice. Let’s give our girls the right to be educated, the right to their own body and the right to live a normal childhood.”

He also adds that disempowered and vulnerable young brides are mostly 
married to men twice their age, elevating the risk of physical and mental violence throughout their lives, and enabling, in his words, a pedophilic culture and sexual abuse in Indonesia.

“Marriage is not just merging of two bodies,” said psychologist Anna Surti Ariani, the founder of Pranikah, a foundation devoted to the sanctity of marriage. “There are other underlying issues that is attached to it. Therefore, marriage requires mental, emotional as well social preparedness and stability, which can’t be found in early marriages.”

Clarification: A version of this story that appeared on page 20 of our Wednesday, Jan. 21 print edition in the third paragraph cited the proportion of teens aged 15-19 in Indonesia who are married as 42 percent, based on Ministry of Health data. It is 6 percent for boys and 13.7 percent for girls, according to the Central Statistics Agency.