Rembang, Central Java. It is ironic that Rembang, a city in Central Java where Indonesian national heroine and pioneer of women empowerment Raden Ajeng Kartini is buried, has gained notoriety for being a hotbed of child marriage and teenage pregnancy.
The city drew the attention of Jakarta-based Credos Institute, which conducted a survey in four of its villages – Woro, Sendangmulyo, Menoro and Mojosari – last year.
Hundreds of people spanning at least three generations responded to the survey, which the organization carried out to produce data on the alarming trends of child marriage and teenage pregnancy in the city.
Findings from the survey highlighted that more than half of the female respondents aged between 12-24 years old said they were pregnant before they turned 20, while 43.6 percent of married female respondents in the same age group said they were married before their 18th birthday.
The Jakarta Globe visited the four villages, located on the northern coast of Central Java, last Thursday (01/03) and talked to several teenagers who had recently married.
Most of the girls admitted they did not even have national ID cards at the time of their weddings and were married against their will, often under heavy pressure from parents who struggle to take care of them.
Pre-marital sex that leads to pregnancy is another major cause of child marriages in the city.
Gender inequality, human rights violations and poverty are still major hurdles to overcome for these women and their families, even as the wider world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8.
Fundamental Violation of Human Rights
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), marriage before the age of 18 is a “fundamental violation of human rights.”
The United Nation’s body that provides humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries said underage marriage endangers reproductive health and increases risks of domestic violence.
Child marriages also present serious challenges to gender equality, as vulnerable girls are led to believe that such marriage complies with religious law, offers them financial protection and increases their family’s honor.
Yodi Christiani, a public health specialist at Credos, told the Jakarta Globe that “in terms of health, ideally girls should give birth when they are 20 or older. To be psychologically prepared, they should be 21 years old at least.”
Siti Chotijah, a 22-year old divorcee, said she will never be able to forget the moment her ex-husband, Chodiron, left her to raise their five-month old son on her own.
Now, three years later, Chotijah is unemployed and Chodiron is still out of the picture.
A native of Menoro village, Chotijah said she was urged by her parents to marry 25-year-old Chodiron – whom she met through her aunt – when she was only 16 in 2011.
At the time, Chotijah was a student at an Islamic boarding school and said she did not feel ready to marry at such a young age.
But her parents, both farmers, were struggling to take care of Chotijah and her younger brother and they convinced Chotijah to marry.
“My parents told me to obey their wishes. They said hopefully I’ll have a better life after marriage,” Chotijah said.
Chotijah later discovered that her ex-husband fled their home after selling the family cow for Rp 20 million ($1,400) and gambled most of it away.
“I didn’t even know the legal requirements to get married,” she said.
‘I Am Aware It’s Wrong’
A 10-minute drive from Chotijah’s home, another young woman, Siti Nadiroh, talked to the Globe on March 1, 15 days after giving birth to her baby daughter.
“I got married because I was pregnant,” 15-year-old Nadiroh said.
Nadiroh said she found out she was pregnant after she was taken by her brother to a village midwife.
Nadiroh’s brother straight away went looking for the father, 18-year-old Lanang.
“My parents were shocked. My brother was ordered to find Lanang. Once he was found, the first thing we did was deciding on our wedding date,” she said.
“I am aware that child marriage is prohibited,” Nadiroh said, but she had no choice but to marry Lanang – who is a poor fisherman.
Nadiroh’s marriage complies with Islamic law and is known locally as nikah siri, but it is not recognized by the state.
The 15-year-old said she then left school because she was afraid she will be bullied for being pregnant.
“I still remember the shame I felt because of my pregnancy,” Nadiroh said.
This youngest child of two siblings said she will now live with her new husband at his parent’s house to raise their daughter.
A Vicious Circle
In Credos’ in-depth report, “Situation Analysis of Child Marriage, Teenage Pregnancy and Female Genital Mutilation in Rembang,” the organization details the link between poverty and human capital and child marriage in the city.
“One of our findings is that investment in education, especially for girls, is still lacking, because traditional patriarchal values still dominate in many communities,” Yodi said.
The report is part of the “Yes I Do” project supported by an alliance of five Dutch-based organizations that report on child marriage, female genital mutilation and unwanted teenage pregnancies around the world.
Credos also conducted a skill assessment of young adults in the four villages and found many of them lack the necessary skills to find employment in the manufacturing industry, one of Rembang’s main sources of income.
Yodi said many young people in the four villages often fall into poverty, and teen marriage further hinders their future prospects.
“It creates a vicious circle, they get married young, they can’t get a good job, then they fall into poverty,” Yodi said.
But the most cited reason why many women marry young in Rembang? To improve their economic standing.
“So the circle goes on,” Yodi said.
According to reports published by the Central Statistics Agency and Unicef, around one in four girls in Indonesia are married before they turn 18.
In Indonesia, this is not illegal. The country’s 1974 marriage law states that once a woman turns 16 she can be legally wed.
“The minimum age for a girl to be married is 16 years old – that’s still underage. Not only does that violate a girl’s right to education and employment, her health can also be compromised if she gets pregnant before she turns 20, before her reproductive system is fully developed. This accounts for a high number of maternal deaths from mothers younger than 20 years old in Indonesia,” the reports said.