“My age is 17 years old and I’m supposed to sit in Grade 2 in Junior High School. Unfortunately, I no longer attend school now.” The sadness and regret at not being able to go to school is evident from the words of Mawaddah, a Muslim girl belonging to the Madura tribe in Indonesia. Even at a young age, Mawaddah knew that she wanted to study to become a doctor.
She grew up in a remote village on Madura Island, East Java province. It is 35 kilometers away from the nearest city, travelling through rough and rugged roads. The nearest public health facility (Puskesmas) is around three kilometers away. “Although there are staff in Puskesmas, there are no doctors. There is no proper equipment to treat people who are ill,” she wrote.
The lack of medical facilities contributes to poor understanding of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Customary practices also undermine these rights. Young girls like Mawaddah receive no medical advice when they experience menstrual pain. Women give birth only with the assistance of a shaman.
Mawaddah was still in Junior High School when her mother betrothed her to a 16-year-old boy. She got married at the age of 15. “My mother said that our marriage was to maintain good relations between our families. I was not sad but I was not too happy. I could only let go, because it has already become a tradition to marry off children. Girls who are still unmarried at the age of 17 will be deemed not ‘sold,’ and their parents will be ashamed,” she wrote.
The prevalence of child marriage in Indonesia is among the highest. According to a 2015 study by UNICEF, one out of four Indonesian girls married before they were 18 years old. Child marriage is found to be 1.5 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas and twice more prevalent in low-income families. Girls marrying before the age of 18 are also six times less likely to complete their secondary education.
After getting married, Mawaddah and her husband stayed in her parents’ house. But the marriage was full of household strife. One day, her husband left without any explanation. “If anyone wants to marry you, accept,” he said, before leaving their home. The marriage lasted only 30 days.
Mawaddah attributed it to fact that they were both still mentally immature. “At that time, I was not grieving and did not regret his departure. I’m just sad and sorry because I could not go to school. My aspiration [was] to become a doctor [that] I could not accomplish…I wanted to go to school again but I could not withstand the shame of what other people would say,” she wrote.
Religious and indigenous customs encourage child marriage. It is seen as a way to “ensure” a future for girls and are usually arranged by parents based on their relationships with other families. “The Madurese have a belief that if a girl is wedded fast, she would be closer to God Almighty. Being married (at a young age) is also advisable for Muslims,” Mawaddah explained.
Mawaddah’s first marriage was not recorded legally since it was carried according to religious law. A year later, in 2016, she met a man whom she fell in love with. Again, due to societal pressure of being betrothed before the age of 17, she remarried. She was 16 years old while her husband was 24.
Because this time she was able to choose her husband, Mawaddah considers herself happy. “With him, I feel more blessed. I wish to have four children. Hopefully, my children will not get married before leaving school,” she wrote.
In Birem, there is the Miftahul Ulum Boarding School, which accepts victims of child marriage. However, not many girls and women are able to attend the school because parents and husbands usually prohibit them.
Currently, Yayasan Kesehatan Perempuan or Women’s Health Foundation-YKP collaborates with health institutions in several districts and cities to provide SRHR education to parents, teachers and girls. They encourage communities to lobby their local governments to make policies protecting victims of child marriage. YKP has submitted a draft to the Indonesian government for an Act for the Prevention of Child Marriages. While not yet passed into law, it has already been discussed by the office of the President and the staff of the Ministry of Religion.
Mawaddah still regrets having to drop out of school because of early marriage. But she hopes that her own children will not suffer the same fate and unlike her, will be able to pursue their dreams.