My Life is My Choice: The Story of Mara
Despite the high prevalence of child marriage in Bone, South Sulawesi, one 15-year-old girl fights back and says no to child marriage.
Mara, at fifteen years old, appears no different than many teenage girls in Bone: soft-spoken, a little shy, used to weighing her words and conduct in front of strangers. Sitting in the living room of her modest roadside home in the sub-district of Tokaseng, north of Bone, she is dressed in a hijab with a geometric motif that accentuates her expressive face and her open, inquisitive gaze. Like her mother, Nur, who accompanies her in the room, she speaks in short, often tentative sentences, and rarely elaborates unless prodded.
Yet something happens when the conversation moves to the subject of singing, her overriding passion. She comes positively alive. “I want to be a professional singer and win major competitions, like my idol Lesti,” she says, speaking of the fifteen-year-old recent winner of Liga Dangdut Indonesia, one of the country’s top singing competitions. “I just know I can do it.”
Mara’s confidence has been largely honed by years of entering—and winning—competitions and watching her own mother sing. “My mother is my greatest inspiration,” she says, to Nur’s surprise and delight.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mara spent her days at school and her afternoons and evenings doing what most schoolgirls her age did: finishing homework, watching TV and getting lost in her phone. Sometimes she would practice singing with her parents.
In the past year, with schools shuttered and learning moved online, her days have been mostly homebound. Like many of her friends, she keeps herself connected to the outside world through multiple social platforms. But unlike many of them, she has managed to pull off a feat: refusing a marriage proposal so that she can keep attending school.
It wasn’t any old marriage proposal. By the region’s standard, Mara’s suitor was considered an excellent match. He owned a store in Makassar and offered a very generous dowry—a detail not lost on Mara’s parents, Nur and Andi, whose sound system rental business was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While Nur and her mother had initially supported the marriage, Andi had been opposed to it from the outset. But for Mara, her decision was never in question.
“I’m too young to get married,” she told her parents. “I want to keep attending school and complete my studies.”
Mara’s determination and clarity of aims have certainly helped strengthen her parents’ joint stance on child marriage. “We could definitely do with the money, and with Mara’s social and economic stability,” Andi said. “But we shouldn’t do it at our daughter’s expense. Nothing is worth more than her future.”
That future, for Mara, is her education. She is aware that once girls like herself are married and have given birth, they likely won’t be able to return to school as they are seen as ‘negative role models.’ “Besides, he is old,” she said with a chuckle, referring to her twenty-three-year-old suitor. “I’m no way as old as him.”
For Mara’s mother, Nur, this realization came later. While she appreciated Mara’s openness with her, including on intimate topics such as boys and dating, she was fearful of the effects modern values and the ominous social media might have on the behaviour of her unmarried daughter.
She also needed financial help to get the family back on its feet. “I never asked Mara to help us economically as I didn’t want to interrupt her studies,” Nur says. “But times are really tough now. No one is renting our sound system. No one is hiring me to sing. We’re barely scraping by.”
However, as Nur reflects back on her past, she is reminded of her own experience of marrying before she turned eighteen—not once, but twice, both ending in divorce. By the time she married Mara’s father at the age of twenty-three, she had had three sons. She knew what it was like, to be a wife and mother when she was not physically and emotionally ready. After some reflection, she, along with her mother, decided to endorse Mara’s decision.
The Need for Comprehensive, Cultural and Community-Based Interventions
Mara’s refusal to marry early is an encouraging sign, and may even point toward a positive, albeit slow trend away from child marriage. But Mara’s story is not typical of families in Bone.
While Indonesia ranks eighth in the world for child marriage, Bone—the second largest municipality on the island of South Sulawesi—has one of the highest burdens of child marriage in the country. Among the main contributing factors, outside of poverty and religious conservatism, is the culture of shame among Bugis parents around the prospect of their daughters’ unwanted pregnancy.
A study published in the Lancet last March concludes that the prevalence of positive perceptions of the benefits of child marriage is equally high among both parents and adolescents in Bone. Not only do they believe in the economic benefits of child marriage, especially in dire economic times such as the past year, but they also set much store by the benefits of child marriage towards family honour and reputation. Tradition and pride still take precedence over the law, ironically just when the law is slowly being revised to reflect the times.
Among recent legal reforms is the amendment of the Indonesia’s Marriage Act in 2019, raising the legal age of marriage for women from 16 to 19 years, which is the same age for boys. Another is the Supreme Court’s publication of a manual providing strict guidance to judges on underage marriage exemptions. In the past year, with UNICEF’s help, the local government in Bone has also started issuing regulations to curb child marriage, with more underway.
Yet harmful practices still persevere. Many child marriages are unofficial and conducted away from the public eye. Local authorities are often reluctant to interfere in family affairs. Most requests for child marriage dispensations are granted by Religious and District Courts. Parents falsify their daughters’ ages at the Civil Registry Office, often paying someone on the inside or getting a marriage broker to help—a practice rendered easier by the fact that many children are effectively ‘invisible’ because they do not even have birth certificates.
It is clear from such a picture that in order to reduce child marriage, there needs to be comprehensive interventions based on cultural understanding and behavioural science. Legal reform (and its enforcement) has to go hand in hand with social norms change. And this cannot take place without an active conversation with girls, boys, parents, religious, traditional and community leaders, and having them participate in the process.
BERANI: Changing Social Norms and Empowering Girls and Communities through Life Education Skills
One such intervention is BERANI**, a joint programme between UNICEF, UNFPA, the Government of Canada and the Indonesian State Planning Agency. Begun in May 2019 through the end of 2020, its aim is to increase knowledge and skills of adolescent girls and boys in menstrual health management, reproductive health, child marriage and life skills. This includes chipping away at the many taboos in Bone society around Sexuality, Reproductive Health and HIV Prevention (SRH) as well as improving the enabling environment that perpetuates child marriage. Apart from working with female religious leaders and developing public regulations, much of the effort is concentrated on creating health platforms in schools.
Mara is among the 5,000 plus students in 26 schools and madrasas across Bone who have received Life Skills Education (LSE). “Prior to LSE, I didn’t understand anything about the changes in my body, or simple things such as how to clean myself when I had my period,” she says. “I also learned that getting pregnant too young can put the baby’s as well as my own health at risk.”
For Mara, one of the most valuable takeaways from LSE is her new understanding of love. “Love,” she says, “is not love without friendship and mutual respect.”
According to Ibu Mashuri, Mara’s social studies teacher at one of LSE-piloting schools, the ability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships is very important. “It’s an essential part of protecting oneself,” she says.
Ibu Mashuri is one of 159 LSE-trained teachers and trainers in Bone who has recently been appointed trainer at one of the village’s Community Learning Activity Centres. She often represents Bone in best practice sharing and is proud of what her school has achieved in such short a time. “Not only do we have more toilets than needed, but we also provide sanitary pads everywhere—in toilets, teachers’ rooms and our School Health Unit,” she says.
She also believes in the effectiveness of LSE in changing students’ and parents’ attitudes towards child marriage.
“We teachers used to get invitations to our students’ weddings, especially around exam time,” she says. “We would make a point of not going, but we would enrol these students for exam anyway to ensure they have a diploma. Since LSE was taught in our school, there has not been a single wedding invitation.” Between 2019 and 2020, there was an almost 80 percent decrease in the number of child marriages in BERANI-supported locations.
Ibu Mashuri also notices LSE’s positive effects on teachers’ attitudes towards SRH. If in the past her colleagues often allowed their own opinions to stand in the way of teaching SRH in an objective and adolescent-responsive way, now they have become more relaxed and open-minded. She sees herself as no exception.
“Before you can debunk taboos for girls, you first have to debunk them for yourself,” she says.
Ensuring BERANI’s Future in Bone during the COVID-19 Pandemic
While there are more such positive stories coming out of Bone, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a serious threat to BERANI’s programme implementation. According to the UN, an additional 10 million girls this decade will be at risk of child marriage. In the past year, more families in Bone have resorted to siri (undocumented marriage) because courts were temporarily closed. Limited face-to-face meetings with local governments and communities are delaying progress. Students and schools are suffering.
“It’s hard to teach LSE through zoom,” Ibu Mashuri says. “Many students don’t have laptops, internet connection, enough phone credit.” Mara also laments the loss of LSE classes in her final year of junior high, and of LSE activities not reproducible online. “I really miss the social part,” she says.
The double challenge of tailoring programmes for online consumption and optimizing the rest is no easy task, particularly when neighbouring villages where there are no prevention programmes continue to practice child marriage. It calls for vision, technology, resources—and, most importantly, time.
Yet there is much goodwill in Bone—and a rising awareness that the fight for women’s rights is the fight for gender equality. And that it can still be fought without disrespecting one’s parents or family.
“After finishing my studies, I want to go to computer school and then find a job,” Mara says. “That way I can help my mother and make her proud of me.”
*Mara’s name and her family members have been changed to protect identities.
** Berani means courage in Bahasa Indonesia.