(HRW) – When celebrating R.A. Kartini, a Javanese feminist (1879-1904) who wrote about women’s rights in the early 20th century, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo invited a number of women rights’ defenders in Jakarta to talk about women’s empowerment.
Naila Rizqi Zakiah of the Community Legal Aid Institute, took the opportunity to ask Jokowi to end child marriage in Indonesia. Zakiah made a reference to a recent viral social media discussion about a 14-year-old Indonesian girl who had wanted to register her marriage to her 15-year-old boyfriend.
Jokowi told Zakiah that he was committed to ending child marriage. He said two ministries, the Coordinating Ministry for Human Development and Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection, are now preparing a presidential decree to amend the 1974 Marriage Law.
It was a bold statement in a country in which child marriage is widespread. According to UNICEF, 14 percent of girls in Indonesia are married before age 18, and one percent marry before age 15. The 1974 Marriage Law permits women and men to marry at 21 but allows girls to marry at 16 and men to marry at 19 with parental permission. Parents can also ask religious courts or local officials to authorize marriages of girls even earlier, with no minimum age in such cases. UNICEF reported that more than 90 percent of these exemption requests are accepted.
Globally, there is overwhelming evidence child marriage has devastating consequences. Married children often leave school, sinking them into poverty. Married girls often have early – and closely spaced – pregnancies, which carries serious health risks, including death for both the girls and their babies. They are also more likely to experience domestic violence.
In June 2015, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected a petition to end child marriage by an 8-to-1 vote. It was a setback, but the ruling also energized many to push for the end of child marriage. Yohana Yembise, the Minister of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection, frequently spoke out against the court’s ruling. She also urged the parliament to amend the Marriage Law.
Indonesia is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and has obligations to end child marriage. Jokowi should follow through on his commitment without delay.