Ending Child Marriage, One Sermon at a Time

A female cleric stands up against child marriage in rural Indonesia.

Dr. Sarifa Suhra, a female Islamic cleric and postgraduate lecturer at the Islamic State Institute of Bone.
09 March 2022

During wedding ceremonies, the religious sermon often conveys messages about creating a happy and long-lasting union. But in eastern Indonesia, female cleric Sarifa Suhra uses her platform for a different purpose: to advocate against child marriage.

Sarifa began urging newlywed couples not to marry their future children young after she received a number of wedding invitations from underage students in her community in Bone Regency, South Sulawesi Province.

“There is a cultural belief that children – especially daughters – must be married as soon as possible,” she explained. “Having suitors is considered an honour, and to deny them is deemed bad karma. Parents think it’s too late if their daughters are not married by the age of 20.”

In some cases, there are also economic factors as parents see marriage as a means to ease financial burdens, especially when they have many children.

Bone district in South Sulawesi has a 14 per cent rate of child marriage, higher than the provincial rate of 12.1 per cent and the national rate of 10.8 per cent. Data from the Communication and Information Office showed that in 2017, there were 2,496 cases of child marriage in the regency among a population of only 800,000 people.

These figures include underage marriages that were registered through the Religious Affairs Office (KUA). While Indonesia raised the minimum age of marriage for women from 16 to 19 in 2019, families can still appeal to the Religious Court for a dispensation or exemption.


Countering Patriarchal Interpretations

Dr. Sarifa gives a sermon to women in her community at a mosque in Bone district.
Dr. Sarifa gives a sermon to women in her community at a mosque in Bone district.

While legal breakthroughs are necessary, Safira believes that as a cleric, she can play a key role in countering entrenched patriarchal tradition and religious interpretation by providing more progressive counterarguments.

“Religious figures keep coming back to the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage with Aisyah, who was said to be underage,” Safira said. “Aisyah’s story has multiple interpretations, but she only lived with the Prophet as husband and wife, years later when she was mature enough.”

“This is what I’ve been trying to do, to fix the misconception. When the arguments are based on religious verses, people are usually more welcoming,” she said.

Safira has not been alone in the fight against child marriage. She is backed by local governments who have reached out to local figures, religious and social organizations, and farmers’ associations.

Samsidar, the Secretary of the Development Planning Agency in Bone, said the local government has been fully supportive to prevent child marriage by integrating all programmes and incorporating efforts to fight against it.

“It has become a central issue. Child marriage has led to school dropouts, child labour, violence, and other social problems,” Samsidar asserted. “We have emphatically advocated against this issue.”


Stepping Up Religious Efforts

Parents play a board game designed to raise awareness on child marriage.
Parents play a board game designed to raise awareness on child marriage.

Sarifa is grateful that clerics like her have been given the space to preach against child marriage. Their efforts together with the government have intensified over the past few years, supported by UNICEF. Please consider donating to UNICEF to support important projects similar to this.

These include writing sermons and guidebooks, which were reviewed by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) before being published and distributed widely to local mosques. The sermons were then recorded at state radio station RRI and distributed for Quran studies and religious gatherings in villages as well as for female farmer communities and traders.

Sarifa and other educators were also appointed as trainers and members of the monitoring and evaluation team for the Life Skill Education programme in Bone. With assistance from UNICEF, the programme was launched in September 2019 and piloted in 12 junior high schools in six sub-districts with high rates of child marriage.

As part of the Life Skills Education programme, teachers and district facilitators in these areas are trained to deliver lessons on self-hygiene, navigating puberty, the internet and social media, reproductive and sexual health, gender equality, self-identity, socializing with friends, and menstrual hygiene management. Support from people like you can help UNICEF sustain programmes like this and implement the Life Skill Education programme in other parts of the country.

Junior high school students in Bone participate in a life skills education activity at school.
LPP Bone/2021
Junior high school students in Bone participate in a life skills education activity at school.

With stakeholders joining forces and coordinating their efforts, the results have been tangible. The number of dispensation cases in religious courts has dropped from 228 cases in 2019 to 174 in 2020, and 62 in 2021. The Bone Regional Legislative Council has also passed the 2021 Bylaw on Child Marriage Prevention, which provides a legal basis for policies and programmes developed by local institutions to prevent child marriage in a coordinated manner.

“It used to be that every semester, there were cases of school dropouts due to child marriage,” Sarifa said proudly. “Before the programme, we received many wedding invitations from students. Now there are none.”

Your gift today will help UNICEF reach more children to ensure they have access to life skills education. Your donation can help UNICEF continue its comprehensive interventions to prevent child marriage.