Aug 5th 2016
MUSRI was only 14 when she learned she was to marry. She did not dare defy the custom of her village in Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, by refusing the proposal from her 25-year-old suitor. After her wedding Musri stopped seeing her friends and studying at school. After just five months, her husband left her. Though she eventually went back to school and went on to find work, the experience was harrowing. “I was too ashamed to leave the house,” she says. “I had to marry someone I did not choose.”
Child marriage is less common in Indonesia than in some corners of the world, notably South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (see chart). But Indonesia still ranks among the ten countries with the highest number of young brides. UNICEF, a UN agency, estimates that each year 50,000 Indonesian girls aged under 15 marry, and 340,000 aged under 18. Recent government figures suggest that nearly a quarter of Indonesian women aged between 20 and 24 who have ever married did so before turning 18.
The case for discouraging early marriage is compelling. Young brides are less likely to finish school and more likely to suffer domestic violence, or health problems during pregnancy and childbirth. They are less likely than their single peers to work, and when they do they earn less. By comparing the life paths of women who married before 18 with the rest, UNICEF calculates that early marriage costs Indonesia at least 1.7% of GDP. This includes lost earnings (mostly from truncated education) but excludes many other costs, such as extra pressure on health services.
A girl is more likely to marry young if she is poor, lives in the countryside, or has parents with little education or a mother who married very young herself. Gradually improving education, urbanisation and rising incomes all mean the national rate of early marriage is falling. But regional disparities are wide: the government’s latest data show that in 12 of Indonesia’s 33 provinces, marrying before turning 18 is becoming more common. Local customs play a big part, says Emilie Minnick, a child-protection specialist in Indonesia: in some areas very young girls from even the wealthiest families are married off.
Last year world leaders promised to end child marriage, as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Yet Indonesia’s laws are at odds with its pledge. Indonesian boys must wait until 19 to marry, whereas girls may marry at 16. Most rich countries also allow marriage at age 16 (for both boys and girls)—but this is an acknowledgement that some under-18s move in with their partners, even if their parents disapprove. In Indonesia an early marriage will generally be at the parents’ behest—and even marrying before 16 is permitted with a court’s consent.
Mounting religious conservatism complicates attempts to change the law: last year a court in Jakarta, the capital, threw out a petition by local campaigners calling for the marriage age for girls to be raised to 18, with no exceptions. Quoting passages from the Quran, the judges said that the change might mean more girls having sex and children outside marriage.