A 12-year-old girl from Banyuwangi, in the Indonesian province of East Java, was recently forced by her adoptive parents to marry a 45-year-old man in a traditional ceremony in order to “repay a favor.”
The man, who already has three other wives, married the young girl in a “nikah siri,” or unregistered marriage. Though such weddings are not recognized by the government or Islamic courts, they are still widely practiced in some parts of Indonesia.
Also known as “secret weddings,” they are usually done when a woman gets pregnant out of wedlock, when a married man has an affair with another woman, or, as in this case, when one of the parties is under 19 years old—the legal age threshold for marriage.
The girl’s adoptive parents, who are actually her aunt and uncle, reportedly felt that marriage was the best way to thank the man for helping them raise her. However, they did not ask for permission from the girl’s biological parents.
Upon finding out, the girl’s biological parents filed a complaint to the neighborhood and village head, prompting residents to report her adoptive parents to the police.
“Her parents reported that their underage daughter was married off to an old man. We’re still interrogating the victim and her witness, including one from the accused,” Banyuwangi Police Chief Arman Syarifudin told Indonesian news website Suara.
Imam Ghozali, who represents the victim, told local media that the man often helped the girl’s adoptive parents pay for her education and health care.
“Her adoptive mother said [the girl] gets sick easily, so the man gave them money to cover her medical bills,” he told the Detik.
“The man is always around, but we don’t know yet whether they have consummated their marriage or not. It is the police's job to investigate further and carry out medical examinations.”
Despite being illegal, child marriage remains rampant in Indonesia, with some parents forcing their children into unions at a young age to pay off debts. Just last month, for instance, another adoptive father named Sappa, also known as Father Alif, married his 12-year-old daughter off to a 44-year-old man named Baharuddin. The marriage was performed according to traditional Muslim customs, despite the local religious affairs office having already rejected the request because the girl was underage.
After the wedding ceremony, the girl’s family asked the Pinrang Religious Court to legalize the marriage, but the court later found that the marriage was an apparent effort on the adoptive father’s part to conceal that he had allegedly raped the girl.
“We immediately arrested the perpetrator,” Dharma Negara, head of the Pinrang District Police Criminal Unit, told Kumparan at the time.
According to data from the Central Statistics Agency’s National Socio-Economic Survey, there were 1.2 million cases of child marriage in 2018.
It is a practice that disproportionately impacts young girls, and the Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice has been pushing for the proper implementation of the Marriage Law, which raised the minimum age for marriage to 19 for both women and men.
Before the revision, women were able to marry at 16. Religious courts, meanwhile, still sometimes allow marriage between children under 19 as long as the parents give their permission.
According to Khotimun Sutanti, a representative from the organization, there are serious consequences for girls forced into child marriages.
Girls in child marriages are also susceptible to domestic violence and poor health, and there is an inherent power imbalance when the husbands are much older, which often leads to physical harm. The young brides also have a higher risk of dying during childbirth because their reproductive organs are not ready for sexual intercourse and pregnancy.
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.