Child marriage and the perpetuation of poverty
January-March 2018
By: Septiani Teberlina Rumapea

Child marriage has been proven to be a leading cause of maternal mortality and childhood stunting in Indonesia and tends to perpetuate poverty. The scale of the problem is immense. While statistics vary, Indonesia’s Ministry of Health has reported that around 47 percent of Indonesian women married between the ages of 10 and 19, increasing the risk of maternal death because their uteruses are not yet fully developed. But in many cases, marrying a child off early, especially if she is a girl, means one less mouth to feed, while cultural traditions in areas such as West Sulawesi Province also contribute to high levels of child marriage.

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has refused to consider raising the legal age of marriage because Islamic texts do not provide any guidance on the issue, but some clerics are starting to spread the message that the practice of child marriage has negative impacts. Nevertheless, the complex issues involved in child marriage are likely to make it difficult to stop, and in the meantime, many more young women are likely to suffer the consequences.

A haunting silence

Early marriage is a clear cause of Indonesia’s high level of maternal mortality and is also likely to perpetuate poverty. Despite the negative effects of the custom, there is an overwhelming sense of silence surrounding child marriage in Indonesia. Communities rarely talk about its effects and consequences, as they accept it as part of the country’s social fabric. On a global scale, Indonesia is among 10 countries with the highest absolute number of child brides and second after Cambodia in Southeast Asia. The practice is largely driven by socioeconomic factors surrounding girls, including poverty, economic dependency, financial incentives and dowry practices, as well as a lack of access to education and health services.

The scale of the problem is immense. Indonesia’s National Socioeconomic Survey in 2012 showed that about 11 percent of Indonesian girls were married between ages 10 and 15, and about 32 percent were married between 16 and 18. A United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report in 2016, however, painted a less dramatic picture. It stated that an estimated one in every seven girls in Indonesia was married before the age of 18. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) states that in 2012, 25 percent of women aged 20 to 24 were married before they were 18 years old. At least 4,809 Indonesian women died during pregnancy and childbirth in 2016, down from 5,019 fatalities recorded in 2012. The national maternal mortality rate stood at a relatively high level of 305 per 100,000 births in 2016, although down from 359 per 100,000 births in 2012. Eni Gustina, the Indonesian health ministry’s family health director, has stated that anemia was the main cause of death, with 37 percent of victims suffering from red blood cell deficiency due to lack of proper nutrition during pregnancy.

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