Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Stolen Childhoods: The Young Brides of West Sulawesi

By Nick Baker, Communication and Knowledge Management Officer

“I preferred being a student to a mum,” Sari* says, cradling her child. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker.

Countless small villages dot the western coastline of Sulawesi Island. Rows of rumah panggung (traditional houses) are set between pristine beaches and thick, rolling jungle. It looks like paradise. But these communities are the scene of a silent crisis.

Child marriage is prevalent across West Sulawesi. The province has the highest rate of girls married at 15 years or younger in Indonesia. For a variety of reasons – cultural, religious, economic – childhoods are lost here on a daily basis.

Ayu* is one such girl. The softly-spoken teenager lives in a farming village called Amara*. “Both my mother and grandmother were married at 14,”she says. And the family tradition continued: “I was 15 when I got married and my husband, Ganes, was 23.”


Ayu and Ganes were wed at the local Kantor Urusan Agama (Office of Religious Affairs). Ayu forged her age – a common practice in her village as most children don’t have a birth certificate. “I just told them I was 18 years old,” she says.

The local imams weren’t too perturbed. “Whether a child has reached puberty or not when they are nine years old, they should be able to get married,” one of them recalls. “The government only allows people to get married [later] which I don’t think is completely right.”

So with an imam’s blessing, the pair settled in to married life together. Ayu quickly fell pregnant. But the relationship soon began to falter. “We started to fight,” Ayu says. Fierce arguments became more and more regular. “Then one day Ganes just packed his bag and left the house.”

Ayu has since given birth and is now a single mother. School, work and future plans have all been put aside. Rocking her son to sleep, Ayu seems listless. “I’m OK now. But I get angry quite often,” she says.

Sari and Dewi are two residents of a nearby village called Kenanga. These girls grew up just across a rice field from each other. They shared much of their upbringing together: school, hobbies, sports. And both their lives changed dramatically when they got married last year – to the same man.

Dewi’s mother sighs. She admits to initially being hopeful about the union of her 15-year-old daughter and a 25-year-old man named Hazar. “We couldn’t buy Dewi clothes and other things that she needed. I thought it would be good for someone to take care of her.”

But married life didn’t last long for the two new brides. Shortly after the weddings, Hazar also decided to move elsewhere in Indonesia. The villagers think he is working on the island of Kalimantan, a few hundred miles away.

Hazar left behind a son with each of his wives. Sari and Dewi now spend their days navigating the challenges of motherhood, long before they expected to. The responsibility and workload often overwhelms them.

Sari says she misses her old life. “I preferred being a student to a mum,” she says, cradling her child. “When I was at school, everything was better.”

A mother and son in West Sulawesi ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker.

It’s a sentiment shared by Intan in the neighboring village of Tambala. This 16-year-old has a very different background to many other child brides in the region. She comes from a particularly wealthy family.

Early last year, a romance blossomed between Intan and a boy named Amet. What started as a simple exchange of text messages quickly progressed to something more serious. Then to Intan’s complete surprise – she fell pregnant.

“I didn’t know that sexual intercourse could lead to a pregnancy,” Intan says. It’s a common admission for girls around West Sulawesi, even those in their mid-to-late teens. The taboo around sex, especially pergaulan bebas (non-marital sex), means the subject is seldom discussed.

An unplanned pregnancy here typically means a hasty marriage. “When a girl gets pregnant, she has to be married,” a kepala desa (head of village) says. Age doesn’t seem to matter. “It is fine for a girl to be married at 15 years old. It is unfortunate, but many people in our community support this view,” he says.

Intan confirms: “Because I was pregnant, I was allowed to get married.” She describes her wedding day as “a blur”. Intan has since left school and spends most of her time around the house. “I wanted to go to university like my other siblings,” she says. “Today I cannot decide what my dreams will be. It’s difficult to predict.”

Most child brides in West Sulawesi struggle to talk about the future. After getting married, their existence is almost entirely predicated on domestic duties. Learning and growing is typically replaced with cooking and cleaning.

This is very much the case with Dina in village of Mahara. Just over a year ago, she was in her final year of high school. Possibilities after graduation appeared endless. But then, with the encouragement of her family, she dropped out of school and was wed to a local car repairman.

“My mum was also married young,” Dina says in the living room of her new home. Her days are very different to when she was a student. “Now I make all the food for my family. I do all the house work.” And she has the added tasks of being a new mother. “My husband does not take care of our child so I have the responsibility to do that also.”

Dina has reluctantly accepted this abrupt transition to adulthood. Occasionally she thinks about what might have been. “I would like to go back to school. Perhaps after a year,” she says. But for now it’s the evening meal that is mostly on her mind. “I like to cook fish and vegetables.”

There’s an overwhelming sense of silence around the cases of Ayu, Sari, Dewi, Intan and Dina. Their communities quietly accept child marriage as part of the social fabric. Its effects and consequences are rarely talked about. Concern, let alone dissent, seems absent in West Sulawesi.

Unless such silence is broken – this crisis looks set to continue for a very long time.

*Names of girls and villages have been changed.


Child marriage is prevalent in Indonesia where one in six girls are married before their 18th birthday. The country’s marriage law currently allows boys to marry at 19 but girls to marry at 16. UNICEF is engaging in a multi-pronged approach to address child marriage in Indonesia, working with children, families, communities and the Government.

This year presents a watershed moment for global efforts to end child marriage. In September, Governments will agree to eliminate child marriage in every country around the world by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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