For hundreds of years, women have been struggling to seize their rights, through organizing themselves and galvanizing a women’s movement to push for better government policies, among other things. However, many women, particularly those from poor rural families, are still vulnerable to dropping out of school, giving them no other option but to settle for work in the informal sector, leaving them exposed to violence.
Denied of protection and security, they can work up to 15 hours a day for only meager wages and are still expected to do household work. The 2013 Social Barometer Survey revealed women are 1.5 times more likely to earn wages lower than Rp 500,000 ( US$38.07 ) per month, compared with men. Given this situation, what is the significance of Indonesia’s position as the only permanent ASEAN member in the G-20, and the optimism that it will be one of the world’s seven largest economies in the next ten years?
Amid the continued economic growth and rapid development, women remain poor. One factor that perpetuates this cycle among women is child marriage.
One woman in East Lombok, for instance, studied only until second grade and was married at 15. Her two children fared a little better; yet the cycle of poverty may continue for them as with her earnings as a vendor, she only managed to send them to junior high school. As a single parent she tried to avoid the local stigma against widows, and remarried four times. All marriages failed, she said, owing to unfaithful husbands and domestic violence.
This was just one story shared in sessions of Sekolah Perempuan ( informal Women’s School, facilitated by NGOs ) which have been held in Pangkajene islands in South Sulawesi, Gresik in East Java, Jakarta, Kupang in East Nusa Tenggara, Padang in West Sumatra, and other areas.
Unlike these poor women the heroine RA Kartini, born on April 21, 1879, was from a noble family; but was similarly unable to go against her parents, and was forced to enter a polygamous marriage. Since her teenage years she had already tried to resist what was then seen as the inevitable fate for girls, and continued to fight for girls’ right to education.
According to a 2014 World Bank study, inequality in Indonesia has worsened and it is girls who are bearing the brunt. Children from poor families fall back into poverty as 71 percent of them are likely to drop out of high school. An earlier 2007 study on education by E-net for Justice, a coalition of NGOs, already showed the dropout rate in poor families reached 77.85 percent.
When the Millennium Development Goals expired in 2015, Indonesia had failed to meet the goal of reducing maternal mortality to 108 per 100,000 live births — which were traced to a high rate of child marriage, as well as poor access to safe pregnancy and delivery services.
Child marriage here remains widespread; we rank second among Southeast Asian countries in terms of the number of early marriages. According to the 2010 Basic Health Research, child marriage in Indonesia accounts for 46.7 percent of all marriages.
However, apart from failing to attract wide attention, 137 years after Kartini, whose birthday we commemorate each year as Kartini Day, we also see resistance against the fight to end child marriage. Under the pretext of culture, religion and morality, the issue is conveniently swept under the carpet. The state continues to endorse child marriage through the 1974 Marriage Law, which sets the legal minimum marrying age for girls at 16, while it is 19 for boys.
A Constitutional Court ruling last year turned down a judicial review request of the 1974 Marriage Law. Though advocates for females had urged the minimum marrying age be increased to 18, the law was upheld by the Court even though child marriage largely leads to disruption of the constitutional right to education.
The Court said an increased marriage age would not guarantee a reduction in health problems and divorce. It disregarded Article 31of the Constitution, which states, “every citizen should receive mandatory basic education and the government must take responsibility for its financing”.
Marriage of children under 18 also flouts the National Development Priorities that explicitly stipulates 12 years of compulsory basic education. Apart from violating the 2003 education law, child marriage contravenes the 1999 Human Rights Law, and the 1984 ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
It also violates the 2002 law on child protection that states that a child is anyone under the age of 18, and other international commitments, as well as the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals.
If President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s mental revolution aims to create a new life for the nation, changing mindsets and cultural and political practices are a must to reconstruct a new life for children, especially girls, as the foundation of our future. Let’s not leave half of tomorrow’s generation stuck in the trap of poverty. Child marriage must immediately be ended by transforming mindsets and shedding conservative views that legitimize the practice.
It is now time for the House of Representatives to revise the outdated 1974 marriage law and the education law to guarantee children’s right to education through the 12-year compulsory education policy. Such a move would be a decisive step to break the chains of poverty in Indonesia.
The write, Missiyah is executive director of Kapal Perempuan ( Women’s Ship ) Institute in Jakarta.