Saying No to Child Marriage in Indonesia

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

Jimmy Kruglinski, Communications Officer
A drawing by artist Rizka Raisa Fatimah Ramli depicting child marriage.
10 October 2019

BONE, Indonesia — On a Monday afternoon in the small village of Warani, 16-year-old Fatma drove back home from school on her motorbike down the bumpy main road, her blue and white uniform fluttering in the wind behind her. She parked in front of the house and walked inside, thinking she would spend the afternoon like she always did — finishing homework and watching soap operas after dinner while she messaged friends on Facebook.

But her hopes for a normal afternoon were shattered just as she entered through the door.

“You’re getting married,” her little sister Irmawati told her, leaving Fatma in a state of shock and confusion.

Their mother Sahari informed her that while she was at school, a small group had visited their home with a marriage proposal. The suitor, a 34-year-old man, was a distant relative whom she had never met before.

Fatma burst into tears upon hearing the news.

“I don’t want to get married,” she exclaimed to her mother before running to the bedroom she shares with her parents and sister. She holed up inside, ignoring her family’s calls for her to come out.

Indonesia has the eighth highest number of child marriages in the world, with one in nine women married before they turned 18 years old.

In Bone, a mostly rural municipality on the island of Sulawesi, the practice of child marriage is more prevalent than in other parts of the country. Deeply rooted traditions and parental beliefs contribute to the higher rates.

“There’s pressure from parents,” explained Pak Aminuddin, a part time counsellor at Fatma’s junior secondary school. “And if someone comes to propose, the family feels it would be rude to say no.”

Economic factors also play a part. Many families like Fatma’s depend on the annual corn harvest for their livelihoods and supplement their income through additional part-time work. The suitor’s family had proposed a dowry of 50 million rupiah, about 3,500 dollars, more than most households in the village typically earn in a single year.

Getting married would have meant that Fatma would have had to abandon her entire life. Her suitor spent the past several years working as a labourer on the neighbouring island of Kalimantan and wanted to bring her back with him once they were wed. His family also proposed a second marriage with her little sister Irmawati, 14, to another older man in their family.

Fatma, though, insisted that she didn’t want to stop attending school and leave her home. She refused to eat anything until her parents changed their minds.

For a girl described as shy and introverted by family and friends, Fatma’s outspoken reaction came as a surprise to her mother. Worried for her daughter, Sahari finally relented later that night.

“We wanted it [the marriage] for her. It was good for a man to come and propose,” she said. “But Fatma didn’t want it, so we turned down their proposal.”

As she learned of her parent’s change of heart, Fatma felt a wave of joy rush over her.

“I’m safe,” she told herself, breathing an enormous sigh of relief. Still dressed in her school uniform, she came out of the bedroom to face her family.

“So, do you feel hungry now?” Sahari asked her daughter before they sat down to dinner that night.

Empowering Girls to Break their Silence

While Fatma was determined to speak up against her proposed marriage, many girls who find themselves in a similar situation struggle to voice their opinions for fear of going against their families’ wishes.

“There’s usually silence from the girls which means yes for the parents,” said Pak Aminuddin.

A recent amendment of Indonesia’s Marriage Act in September 2019 raised the age that girls can get married with parental permission from 16 to 19, in line with the age for boys, which is also 19. Parents, however, can still ask for a court to issue a “dispensation” which provides legal permission for underage girls and boys to marry.

Although laws and policies impact the rate of child marriage, traditions and cultural attitudes remain at the heart of the issue.

A UNICEF-supported initiative in Indonesia aims to empower adolescents to address the challenges they face in their communities, including child marriage. Through the Life Skills Education programme, students gain a comprehensive knowledge on important topics and the skills to manage risks and make informed decisions about their lives, such as when to get married.

Pak Aminuddin is one of 30 teachers from 12 schools in Bone who have already participated in the training for the Life Skills Education programme. Many girls in the community marry too young, he says, which leads to health problems for their children such as stunting and lower IQ. He is planning to deliver the programme as part of an anti-child marriage campaign in the schools where he teaches.

“I want to make the life skills education a part of the curriculum,” he said.

In order to curb the rate of child marriage in the country, getting girls into school and keeping them there is key says UNICEF Child Protection and Gender Specialist Emilie Minnick.

“Girls who have secondary education are 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 all girls and women are empowered and in charge of their own destinies.”

After refusing the marriage proposal, Fatma’s parents now plan to send her to the nearby secondary school next year. She dreams of becoming a doctor so she can take care of her parents and help others, inspired by a visit to the local health centre. A patch stitched to the sleeve of her uniform indicates her membership in the school’s Red Cross club, where she learned to treat minor injuries and carry an injured person on a stretcher.

Aware that the path ahead of her will be long and rigorous, Fatma believes the ideal age for her to get married is 25.

“I want to continue my studies,” she said. “I’m still very young and I’d like to complete my education.”

She takes a moment to imagine what would have happened if she had been forced into marriage.

“I would have immediately demanded a divorce,” she said with a laugh.


*Names have been changed to protect identities.