The most-controversial marriage in recent history started with a simple affair. Syamsuddin and his soon-to-be wife Fitrah Ayu were gathered with their families at Fitrah's mother's home, in Bantaeng, a rural district on the bottom of South Sulawesi. The short ceremony began when a preacher entered the room, leading everyone in the recitation of two Islamic verses, Al-Fatihah and Shahada. Syamsuddin and Fitrah exchanged their vows and then it was over.
"Your marriage certificate will be done in two-to-three days," the preacher told the newlyweds. "I'd better get going now."
Then came the outrage. You see, Syamsuddin and Fitrah weren't just newlyweds. They were child newlyweds, two teenagers—Fitrah is 14, Syamsuddin, 16—getting married in a part of Indonesia where child marriage rates are nearly three-times the national average. The legal age for marriage in Indonesia is 19 for men, and 16 for women—an age that campaigners have been petitioning the government to raise to 18 years old for women.
Both Syamsuddin and Fitrah were well below the legal age of marriage. But they had gotten married anyway. The criticism online piled up. Soon, the local Office of Religious Affairs (KUA) had rejected their marriage, arguing that both of them were way too young. The couple had to reschedule their wedding reception, which was supposed to happen on March 1, and appeal the decision with the local religious court.
"The staff at KUA told us to file for a legal dispensation from the religious court," Nurlina, Fitrah's aunt, told me. "I handled everything. I asked for a statement letter from the urban wards and subdistricts. After that I brought it to the religious court.”
The court had to convene twice after the groom's father failed to show for the first hearing. The religious judges asked the two teenagers if someone was forcing them to get married. The families denied it, and said that the marriage was entirely the teens' idea.
"We told them that they love each other and that they wanted to be married," Nurlina recalled.
The courts ruled in the couples' favor, telling them that the marriage was legal as long as they attended a class on how to be husband and wife. When they arrived, there were 12 other couples in attendance. Syamsuddin and Fitrah were, by far, the youngest in the room.
"It lasted a day," Fitrah told me. "We were given advice and everything."
But all of this was still early in the outrage cycle. News of their wedding had made a stir, but it was only later, after the court upheld the wedding, that the press started to descend on their home. A photo of the pair, seen here, went viral online. The newlyweds' family didn't know what to do. Few people can stand the test of being trust from small town obscurity to the national spotlight overnight. The ordeal left Nurlina shaken and confused.
"My neighbors told me about it," Nurlina told me. "I was so shocked when they showed me Fitrah and Syam's photo off the internet. Then the journalists started to come to our house. Some were calling us on the phone. I was so scared."
In Indonesia, there can be a world of difference between the cities/ suburbs and the countryside. In 2016, 45 percent of the population, about 117 million people, like in the rural countryside. Poverty rates nearly double—from 7.8 to 14.1— when you leave the urban areas behind.
In Bantaeng, South Sulawesi, where Syamsuddin and Fitrah are from, nearly 10 percent of the entire district lives in poverty. But there is no data on rural poverty rates in either Bantaeng or South Sulawesi, at least none we could find.
Poverty and child marriage are inextricably linked. In developing nations, girls from poor families are three times more likely to marry before the age of 18 than their wealthier peers, according to the nonprofit Girls Not Brides. And child marriage only reinforces this trend by trapping young girls in a cycle of poverty.
Girls who marry before the age of 18 earn less, have lower levels of education, and are more likely to have health complications during pregnancy. Globally, child marriage will cost the government's of developing nations trillions of US dollars by 2030 if rates persist, according to a study by the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women.
In few places in Indonesia is child marriage more prevalent than Sulawesi. In Indonesia, ten provinces have child marriage rates of 30 percent or higher. Half of them are in Sulawesi, including three of the four topping the list—West Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi, and Gorontalo.
And local officials seemed unconcerned with calls to lower the prevalence of child marriage. Hartuti, the secretary of a women's nonprofit and head of Syamsuddin's village, told me that there was no point in discussing the couple's marriage anymore.
“We can’t do anything about it at this point,” Hartuti said. “It’s about preventing kids from committing adultery anyway.”
South Sulawesi, where Syamsuddin and Fitrah live, has the eighth highest rates of child marriage in the country, with a rate of 31.3 percent. A figure that high means that 11.4 percent of all girls living in the province are married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF data.
It also means that thousands of girls and boys—but mostly girls—don't graduate from high school. In 2017, 11,000 school aged children in South Sulawesi were barred from participating in the National Exam—a test required to graduate school—because they were already married, according to a report by the province's department of women's and children's protection.
But you lose sight of something when you boil child marriage down to pure data. You lose the children themselves. Local media seized on the rumor that the couple only got married because Fitrah, whose father works nights and mother is dead, was afraid to sleep in her house alone.
The actual story is far less likely to go viral. Syamsuddin and Fitrah got married so early because that's what people do in South Sulawesi. When the media started to gather outside Fitrah's home, her family, and their neighbors, were confused over why the wedding had caused such a fuss.
"The couple who lived next door also got married when they were still in school," Nurlina told me. "Now they already have children of their own."
Syamsuddin’s sister Shinta told me she got married at 13 and gave birth to her first child only one year later. Today, she's a mother of two.
“It’s very common here,” Shinta told me.
Fitrah had a difficult childhood. She's the middle of three children born to Darmawati, a woman who passed away when she was only 34 years old. At the time, Fitrah’s oldest sister was 17 and she and Fitrah had to help support the family.
When school let out, Fitrah would go to wait tables at a small restaurant near her family's home. The hours were long, she would routinely get home after 3 AM, and she only made between Rp 30,000 and Rp 50,000 ($2.17 USD to $3.61 USD) a day.
Her family used the money to buy rice and electricity. Whatever was left over, Fitrah would give to her little sister. But to her classmates at school, Fitrah wasn't a daughter working hard to help support her household. She was a "bad girl," someone who stayed out late and probably used drugs.
By 8th grade, Fitrah was sick of the rumors, so she decided to drop out and work full time.
She still made it twice as far as her young husband. Syamsuddin dropped out in 4th grade. Today he works in construction and brings home Rp 60,000 ($4.33 USD) a day.
On paper, neither of them look like they are heading toward a bright future. But Fitrah doesn't see it that way. She told me she was optimistic about their future together.
"You just have to be patient,” she said. “If Syamsuddin and I just go through it together, we can make it work. Inshallah, we will be happy.”
The young couple looked relaxed the night of their wedding reception. It was nearly 11 PM when they asked me to borrow my phone and snapped some selfies. Fitrah said the camera was better on my phone than hers. I had handed them a letter my wife wrote to them before I left my house. I told her I was heading out to meet the young couple and my wife said she had something to tell them.
They smiled and thanked me after reading the letter. Fitrah later told me the letter made her feel like I was someone who could understand what she was going through. She said my wife didn't seem like a stranger. My wife seemed more like a friend she just hadn't met yet. Before I left, Fitrah had one request.
"Don’t be like the other journalists,” she said. “Don’t write that I’m just eager to get married.”