One in nine girls is put up into arranged marriage by relatives before they reach 18 years old in Indonesia. The West Nusa Tenggara province, which includes Lombok, ranks among Indonesia’s top 10 provinces for child marriage, according to official statistics.
Poverty and tradition are said to be the driving forces behind child marriage in this Southeast Asian archipelago of 260 million in population.
Globally, 12 million girls become child brides each year, facing greater risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death during childbirth, according to campaign group Girls Not Brides.
The government raised the marriage age for girls from 16 to 19 in September, but rights groups fear deep-rooted traditions and the practice of not registering unions could hamper efforts to end the scourge.
Lombok’s bride kidnapping ritual dates back generations among the Sasak, an ethnic Muslim group of about 3 million who mostly live on the island east of the resort destination Bali.
At one time, negotiations were held between families after a Sasak man set his sights on a woman, in contrast to bride kidnappings plaguing countries like Kyrgyzstan, Mali and Ethiopia. The man would then take the woman to an agreed location to see if they were compatible, as relatives supervised.
Now the ritual often results in sad tales like that of Indonesian teenager Helma Yani who received a marriage proposal from a boy she had just met. He spirited her away to a relative’s house and a month later, at age 17, they were married.
“Bride kidnapping” is an easy excuse for men to force marriage on young vulnerable women. Once a girl is with a suitor for days, parents are typically so desperate to avoid social stigma they agree to the union.
Yani is one of nearly 1.5 million child brides in Muslim-majority Indonesia, which has the world’s eighth-highest number of underage unions according to the United Nations.
In Lombok, which sends one of the highest numbers of Indonesians overseas as migrant workers, some parents feel their daughters can be better looked after in their absence if they marry. It also alleviates a financial burden.
“It is done in the name of tradition, so people just accept it blindly regardless if it is right or wrong,” said Faozan, of the local non-profit Village Children Protection Group.
Faozan, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said rampant underage marriage on Lombok has been linked to social ills ranging from divorce to unplanned pregnancies, maternal deaths and stunting among children.
MARRIAGE UNDER ISLAMIC LAW
In addition, Islamic ceremonies are common. Islamic law permits such unions but because they are not formally registered women are often denied their rights and maintenance payments in the case of divorce.
Yani, who was married under Islamic law and divorced by her husband a month before she gave birth, is struggling to get her baby a birth certificate as her marriage was never formally registered.
The Indonesian government has stated that raising the age of marriage would save children from underage unions. The change came after Indonesia’s top court last year ruled in favour of a petition by women’s rights groups who argued the rule discriminated against girls, who could marry at 16 while the legal age for men is 19.
But the new law permits exceptions if parents ask the court for permission, raising concerns that young women could still be forced to marry in large numbers.
Indonesia’s Women Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry said in a recent statement that it planned to raise awareness through education among children, parents and religious leaders to end child marriage. It did not reply to a request for comment. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)