Saying NO to Child Marriage in Indonesia: Fatma’s Story

Deep-rooted traditions in South Sulawesi have led to higher rates of child marriage in the region, but a situation that prompted a 16-year-old girl to find her voice and protect her future.

A drawing by artist Rizka Raisa Fatimah Ramli depicting child marriage.
10 October 2019

Fatma*, 16, was riding her motorbike home after school one afternoon. There were bumps here and there along the main road in her small village in Bone, but Fatma was used to them. Her white and blue uniform fluttered in the wind behind her. She was happy and content.

Once she arrived, Fatma parked the motorbike and walked inside, thinking that it was going to be another normal afternoon: she would be doing her homework and watching TV after dinner while chatting with friends on Facebook.

But all hope for that normal afternoon shattered as soon as she appeared in the living room. “You’re getting married,” said her sister Irmawati, her finger pointed at Fatma. For a moment, Fatma looked like she could not hear what her sister was saying or what her words really meant. Perhaps, Fatma refused to. Her head felt spinning.

Unbeknownst to Fatma, a group of people had come to her house that morning with a marriage proposal. The groom-to-be was a 34-year-old man, a distant relative of Fatma’s family who worked in Kalimantan and whom Fatma had never met before.

Fatma burst into tears. “I don’t want to get married!” she exclaimed and then ran to the bedroom she shares with her parents and sister. She locked herself, ignoring her family’s calls.

Indonesia has the highest number of child marriage in the world. One of every nine girls are married before the turn 18 years old.

Bone: the region with the highest child marriage rate in Indonesia

In Bone, the second largest district in South Sulawesi, child marriage is even more prevalent compared to other regions in Indonesia.

Deep-rooted traditions and close relationships between families, especially among parents, contributed to the high number.

“There is pressure from parents,” said Aminuddin, a part-time counselling teacher at Fatma’s junior secondary school. “There’s also that strong culture of wanting to keep things harmonious. When someone comes to propose, the family feels that it’s rude to refuse.”

Economic factors also play a part. Fatma’s family is just one of many other families whose livelihoods depend on the annual corn harvest. They needed to take up other jobs to meet daily necessities, and even more so after the pandemic hit. Meanwhile, the amount of dowry offered by the suitor’s family was substantially higher than the average annual income of the families in the village.

But Fatma knew that getting married would mean she would have to abandon not only her home and family, but also her education, her friends, and her dreams. She was also aware that most schools would not accept a re-entry of a female student who is married, since she would be considered as a bad example for the other students.

Knowing the kind of life that would await her, Fatma refused to eat as a sign of protest.


Fatma ‘negotiates’ with her parents

Fatma’s response came as a surprise to her mother, Sahari, who then relented. “We’re happy with the proposal,” she said. “But Fatma is the one who will be going through the marriage. And she didn’t want it. So, we turned it down.”

Fatma was elated, but she quickly realized that there are many girls that are not as lucky. To Fatma, that moment showed how deeply her parents love her.


The challenges behind child marriage

Indonesia’s Marriage Act used to allow girls to marry, with parental permission, starting from 16 years old but a recent amendment in September 2019 raised that minimum age to 19 years old – the same age as boys. UNICEF welcomes this change.

However, in practice, parents can apply for “dispensation” to a court that will issue a legal permission for underage girls and boys to marry.

For families that live in severe poverty and surrounded by a system that does not protect the poor, women, and girls, marrying the girls in the family is often a question of survival. At times, it is seen as the only way out.  

Through its work with multiple partners, UNICEF has in place several child marriage prevention programs that would benefit from your support. (Please consider to donate safely through this link.)


Empowering girls

Fatma’s courage to take control over her future shows that girls can ‘choose to stand for themselves’. Nevertheless, there are still many girls who find themselves in the same situation and are unable to break away from child marriage practice. Some of them are afraid they might hurt their parents, while some struggle to voice their opinions. “There’s usually silence from the girls, which the parents take as a ‘yes’,” Aminuddin explained.

To reduce the rate of child marriage in Indonesia, the key is to ensure that all girls have access to and can finish their education, said UNICEF Child Protection and Gender Specialist Emilie Minnick. “Girls with secondary education is up to four times less likely to be married as children,” she said.

“By working together to keep girls in school and out of marriage, we can create a world where girls and women are empowered and in charge of their life.”

Emilie Minnick, UNICEF Child Protection and Gender Specialist.

How do we change this situation?

Life Skills Education is a UNICEF-supported initiative that aims to create change. It is also part of BERANI, a program where UNICEF collaborates with UNFPA, the Canadian Government, and the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas).

Implemented from May 2019 and concluded at the end of 2020, BERANI taught girls and boys about menstrual health and hygiene, female reproductive health, and the negative consequences of child marriage. The participants were also given life-skills, such as how to make informed decisions about their future – including the decision not to marry before they are able to complete their education.

Fatma is one of those adolescents that were empowered by the program. After her refusal to the proposal, her parents send her to a high school close to home. She has joined the school’s Youth Red Cross program and wishes to be a doctor one day.


Challenges in Scaling-Up Life-Skills Education

Today, the schools that have adopted Life-Skills Education program need more capacity, expand their content, and enlarge their network. Recent data show that the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down, even stopped albeit temporarily, the program’s activities in Bone because of mobility restrictions and social distancing policies. Such disruption can cause adverse consequences, especially in villages that have never received the program and where child marriage have continued.

Aminuddin is one of the 30 teachers from 12 schools in Bone who attended the program’s training. “I want to make this program a part of the curriculum,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate if we have to lose the program just because of budget reason.”

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of students and teacher.

How You Can Help

Thanks to the generous contributions of individual donors, and the collaboration with teachers, partners, and other actors who share the same concern towards Indonesia’s future, UNICEF has been able to help Fatma and other girls to say no to child marriage through BERANI and other programs.

However, the road towards equality is long and winding. There are many challenges to tackle and for that we need your support.

If you want to help protect the future of girls like Fatma, please consider donating to UNICEF.  We very much appreciate your contribution.

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