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New Study Reveals Worrying Trends in Underage Marriage in Indonesia

February 15, 2012

Aisyiyah, the women’s wing of Muhammadiyah, recently released results of a study it did on adolescent sexuality in Yogyakarta’s Bantul district. Pointing to the widespread practice of girls marrying in their teens and even below the legal age of 16, the study makes for a worrying read.

The research, conducted through questionnaires distributed to 717 students aged 14 to 21 at various schools in Bantul and followed up with focus group discussions (FGD), indicates that adolescents have very little knowledge about their bodies and their sexuality, and that this correlates with a high rate of underage marriages.

The research also shows that many young people remain strongly attached to a variety of reproductive health myths. These are related to such phenomena as menstruation, but also to pregnancy and its prevention.

Data from the Banguntapan, Dlingo and Kasihan sub-districts shows high rates of both marriage and pregnancies below the age of 20. The level of young marriages in Bantul can also be seen from the large number of “dispensations” issued by the Bantul Religious Court to grant permission for such marriages. Although the age requirements set out in the Marriage Law are violated, the dispensations are unavoidable because these young couples will need marriage certificates to arrange their children’s birth certificates.

In the Dlingo sub-district, most of the FGD participants had not received any formal information about reproduction. What little they did know, they had learned from friends or the internet.

According to data collected by Aisyiyah from the Bantul Religious Court, there were only ten requests for such age dispensations in 2000, but 115 such cases in 2010. While this could suggest increased public awareness of the importance of documentation of marriages, the facts on the ground still indicate a high number of underage marriages. FGDs with adolescents in Kasihan and Dlingo revealed several reasons why many marry young.

Some cited a desire to reduce the financial burden on parents, fear of becoming an “old maid” and the myth of loss of virginity through repeated menstruation. The No. 1 reason cited, however, was unwanted pregnancy.

In any case, the research underlines that unwanted pregnancies occur due to youngsters’ – and their parents’ – lack of proper knowledge about sexual and reproductive health. Another FGD, with religious court judges and Religious Affairs Office (KUA) officials in Bantul, found many reasons why it was difficult for KUA officers to prevent underage marriages.

These include poverty, and the desire of farming communities to have an additional source of unpaid labor; traditional attitudes such as concerns that one’s daughter may become an old maid; the lack of outreach by village and sub-district officials to promote a later age of marriage, and lack of funding for such outreach efforts; and geographical factors making it difficult for KUA officials to meet in person with the prospective bride when couples register for marriage.

It is pointless simply to complain about the situation, or for the parties concerned to blame one another. What is needed, clearly, is education. The new data proves once again what health activists have long been shouting: that education on reproductive health is essential.

Though some people still reject this idea, claiming it would be tantamount to teaching young people how to have sex, the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and consequently underage marriages, is to provide accurate, appropriate information about sexuality. Based on Islamic jurisprudence, this can in fact be categorized as an emergency situation: it is far better to choose the path of the lesser adverse impact.

Other concrete steps would be to increase local government budgets for the dissemination of information or to expand counseling institutions for adolescents, and not just in major cities. Perhaps (female) KUA administrative personnel or village officials could be encouraged to serve as reproductive health counselors for young people.

Finally, we need to end discrimination in medical family-planning services, which currently are only accessible to married couples. This may be a controversial proposal for some, but it is unavoidable. Our young people are being led astray by misleading information about sex, with disastrous consequences.

This article was first published in the Jakarta Globe on February 8, 2012.

Lies Marcoes is a senior program officer at The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. She can be reached at liesmarcoes@tafindo.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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