I WAS in the city of Ponorogo in East Java in February this year. Ponorogo is famous for its culture and tradition. People from that part of Java have migrated to Peninsular Malaysia, with many settling in Johor and Perak.
It is in the kabupaten (regency) of Ponorogo that I saw many posters extolling the ideal age for marriage (usia ideal menikah).
According to the posters, for men it is 25 years old and for women, 21. The idea was to encourage young couples to plan their marriage (perkahwinan berencana).
Child marriage is nothing new for Indonesia. Unicef places the country as the eighth highest in the world for the number of child brides. According to Indonesia’s 2010 Population Census, child marriage is most prevalent in West Sulawesi, West Sumatra, Central and East Java and South Kalimantan.
But Indonesia is addressing the issue with political will. In a victory for advocates against child marriage, the Indonesian Parliament in 2019 passed a law to raise the minimum age for women to marry to 19. Before this, girls were allowed to marry at 16 and boys at 19.
Indonesia has also committed to eliminating early and forced marriage by 2030.
The aim is to reduce risks to woman’s health, ensuring their human rights and to eliminate the possibility of maternal mortalities.
The posters in Ponorogo, however, set a higher age than the one passed by Parliament.
It is also much higher than our target of 18, and ours is a year below the one passed by the Indonesian lawmakers.
The difference is, we are still haggling over the matter while the Indonesians have already made up their mind.
The latest controversy regarding Hannah Yeoh’s posting on her Twitter account proves that the issue is as much religious as it is political, thus a sensitive one. Yeoh is the former deputy minister for the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.
Her posting questioning her successor on what is happening to the national road map to end child marriage became a contentious issue.
The fact that she is a DAP lawmaker is perhaps part of the reason for the displeasure among some people. The attack on her in social media was ferocious and she was even summoned by Bukit Aman.
The fact of the matter is the National Strategic Plan to Address Causes of Underage Marriage is in place. Former minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who was also the former deputy prime minister, was quick to defend Yeoh.
Wan Azizah should have known better.
She is instrumental in outlining the seven objectives, 17 strategies and 58 programmes to address the causes of child marriage in the country.
Yeoh also received bipartisan support from, among others, the MP for Pengerang Datuk Seri Azlina Othman Said.
There is no easy way to resolve the issue pertaining to child marriage.
Muslim marriage falls under the jurisdiction of state governments. When the draft Bill was proposed earlier, at least seven states voiced concerns over the amendments to the Islamic Family Law Act 1984 to set the minimum age of marriage at 18.
Child marriage is a multiracial problem.
Over the years, there have been royal support on the matter.
The Raja Permaisuri Agong famously tweeted about the need for girls to at least complete their Form Five education to help eradicate poverty and stop child marriage. The Sultan of Selangor has also made clear his position on the matter.
Child marriage cannot be used as an excuse now. In the past, poverty gave little choices for parents. Girls hardly reached the age of menarche (when girls first start to menstruate) when they were married off. By getting their daughter a husband, her parents were no longer responsible for her.
Most girls were uneducated then, especially in the villages, thus getting them to marry early was a logical thing to do. There was also family honour involved.
But the dynamics of society are changing, hence we must be ready to change our mindset too. And this is not an easy task. In June 2015, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected a petition to end child marriage by an 8-1 vote. It was definitely a setback.
However, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was committed to making it happen. It was this political determination that resulted in the landmark decision by Indonesia’s Parliament last year.
We have a long way to go, by the looks of it.
Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company. He is passionate about all things literature and the arts, and a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
Did you find this article insightful?
100% readers found this article insightful