child marriage

Death of a Teen Girl Prompts New Debate Over Child Marriage In Indonesia

She was only 15 years old.

by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
28 November 2018, 11:00am

A person walks by a poster protesting child marriage in this file photo shot in Turkey. Photo by Murad Sezer/Reuters

The tragic death of a teenage girl, allegedly at the hands of her 16-year-old husband, in a small Indonesian city last week is prompting new calls to ban child marriage in a country where as much as 35 percent of girls marry before the age of 18 in some regions.

The girl, who we're calling Sari here because even though she was married, she was also underage (15 years old), died in the ICU of a hospital in Indramayu, West Java, last week after being badly beaten by her teenage husband. That boy, who we're calling Indra, was detained by the police but then let go 24 hours later on a lack of evidence. This is despite the fact that he reportedly posted an image of Sari's badly beaten face to Facebook the same day she arrived at the hospital.

The abuse appears to have been a chronic issue, according to Sari's grandmother. The girl was born in a poor family in West Java, where she was raised by her grandmother alone. Her own mother worked overseas as a migrant worker and her father died when she was only seven.

When she was only 13, Sari married Indra, who was only 14 at the time. She was pregnant five months later, and seven months after that, she had to undergo an emergency cesarian section to save the life of her and the baby. Her child, who was severely premature, only lived for two weeks.

It was the death of their child that caused something in Indra to change. He began to attack Sari on a regular basis, beating her with a savagery that scared the young girl. She told her grandmother, the only parent she's ever known, about the abuse, but the woman thought it was just a phase, something Indra would feel sorry about later. She was wrong.

Watch: Child Marriage Hasn't Been Fully Banned In Any US State

The girl's death touched a nerve in Indonesia, where a fight to end child marriage has all but stalled and as many as one in nine young girls are married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF data. That makes Indonesia home to more than 1.4 million child brides, according to recent estimates, a figure that represents one of the largest populations of underage brides on Earth—although that figure is partially skewed by the fact that Indonesia itself is one of the largest countries in the world.

Regionally, countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, and Malaysia are all struggling with child marriages, despite a renewed push to outlaw the practice in Malaysia after a 41-year-old man married an 11-year-old girl in July of this year.

Now, in Indonesia, the death of this 15-year-old girl has some blaming the state for, at best, ignoring this issue.

"She could have been saved if she was sent to school and got to play with her friends instead," Darwinih, the secretary of the West Java Indonesia Women Coalition (KPI), told the Jakarta Post. "Not only did the adults fail her, the state also failed her."

It's a story of compounding tragedies born from difficult circumstances. Indramayu, a town of about 100,000 on the northern coast of West Java, is one of the poorest places in the province, where as much as 16 percent of residents fall below the government's poverty line of living off about Rp 10,000 ($0.68 USD) a day.

It's also a town where virginity is seriously prized, to the point where virgin girls are paraded around town in ornate outfits during harvest times in a local tradition called Ngarot. This combination of high poverty rates and an emphasis on a girl's virginity has created an environment where Indramayu has some of the highest rates of child marriage in West Java. (It's also one of the largest sources of sex workers in Indonesia, itself another consequence of the town's unfortunate circumstances.)

These marriages are often full of problems, including domestic violence. In Indramayu, one of the eight towns surveyed in 2011 by the University of Gadjah Mada and Plan Indonesia, 44 percent of the child brides questioned told researchers that they suffered from instances of abuse at home.

“In child marriages, the girls are prone to suffer from domestic violence, particularly when they are uneducated and lack knowledge about gender equality,” Yuyun Khoerunisa, the secretary of the Indramayu chapter of the KPI, told the Jakarta Post.

Campaigners in Indonesia have, for years, tried, and failed, to get the legal age of marriage raised to at least 18 years old. I say "at least" because some experts in Indonesia argue that people aren't really emotionally prepared for something as big as a marriage until 21. Under Indonesian law that already exists, a couple is supposed to be at least 21 if they want to be married in the eyes of the state. But there are so many loopholes that this age requirement is all but ignored in many instances.

Take the wedding of Sari and Indra. Sari was 13. Indra was 14. Their marriage should've been illegal, but they were married in a religious court, not a state one, where girls as young as 16 and boys as young as 19 can be married off. Since Sari was still three years shy of that requirement—and Indra even further—their families begged the religious court for what's called a marriage dispensation—basically a waiver of all age requirements for marriage. The family claimed that they were worried the two would have sex, that she would no longer be a virgin, and that both of them would have committed zina, a violation of Islamic laws and customs against sex outside of the bounds of wedlock. The courts acquiesced and the two were married.

“Most parents ask for permission from the court out of fear that their children will commit adultery," Indry Oktaviani, the Coordinator of Public Policy Reform Working Group at the KPI, told VICE. "Their fears are groundless. Their kids maybe won’t even do it. This reasoning is usually based on them not knowing how to prevent their kids from having sex outside of marriage. Parents are supposed to teach sex education to their kids, not marry them off when they are still underage."

But nationwide, this is still a common work-around in Indonesia, where the law often takes a back seat to religious and social norms. It's a loophole those campaigning to end child marriage want the government to close.

“We need to admit the fact that child marriage can technically still be legal," Mariana Amiruddin, of the National Women’s Committee, told Media Indonesia. "Because of that, we need to get rid of marriage dispensation."

The matter has been brought before the courts, the ministries, and even the president himself. But, so far, little to no movement has happened. Two years ago, a coalition of civilians and legal experts drafted a presidential decree that would put an end to child marriage in Indonesia. President Joko Widodo reviewed the document and promised to sign it into law in April. It still remains unsigned.