Monday, 26 February 2018

‘I was one of the lucky ones’: a politician steps out on child marriage

Ibu Suraidah, head of the Mamuju parliament © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017

By Cory Rogers, Communication Officer

West Sulawesi: In wet-season West Sulawesi Province, rainclouds drift east from sea to land, drenching groves of cacao trees in thick sheets of rain.

It’s a reliable cycle that makes West Sulawesi a top producer of chocolate. 

But here, 4 flying hours east of Jakarta, a separate, social cycle, is watering a bitter harvest.

“Every day, 375 girls are married in Indonesia,” says Amanda Bissex, UNICEF Indonesia Chief of Child Protection. “Every one of these marriages deprives girls of their right to a safe and protected childhood.”

One in six girls in West Sulawesi marry before turning 18. Ibu Suraidah, who heads the Mamuju District Parliament (DPRD) on the province’s western coast, knows well the toll such marriages take: As a 16-year-old back in 2001, she became a child bride herself.

It began with a furtive, afterschool relationship with a man five years older. Before long, things got serious, and Suraidah found herself pregnant. 

Overnight, marriage transformed from distant dream to urgent reality – and for a girl living in conservative Mamuju, a way to right a wrong.

“Today I tell teenagers to be careful…dating can force you to speed up your life,” Suraidah says. “We must find ways to avoid child marriage.”

Doing so is critical if all girls are going to realize their education rights, as child brides are four times less likely than unmarried girls to complete secondary education.

The soaring drop-out rate is driven partly by the fact that, while boys can marry at 19, for girls the age is 16 – right in the middle of high school.

Suraidah was determined not to let her education become a casualty of marriage. But her growing belly became a liability that threatened to derail her studies. 

“The school was embarrassed … but I really wanted to go on to the next grade,” she says. “My parents insisted I stay in school.”

“Today I tell the Dinas [education agency] and school principals that if there’s a teenager or student who gets pregnant, to not ostracize them. The psychological impact is significant, and not all of these children will [be able to] continue their schooling.”

“I was one of the lucky ones.”

Despite her determination, staying in Mamuju wasn’t much of an option, given the stigma Suraidah would face as a young mother in high school, she says. So after a big wedding and the birth of her son, Suraidah transferred to a school in provincial capital Makassar; close enough to come home, but far enough to be anonymous. The young couple left their infant boy with Suraidah’s parents in Mamuju, however, so that Suraidah could focus on school.

Two years later, diploma in hand, Suraidah was excited to apply to prestigious universities outside Sulawesi. “But I decided I had to put family first,” she says. She ended up enrolling at a local university, to be close to her son and her parents. 

The proximity to her father, himself a former DPRD lawmaker, proved fateful. “Of the seven children, I asked my father why is it me you want to follow in your footsteps?

“All he said was that as his child, he just knew,” Suraidahlaughs. “But it’s funny he’d pick his daughter, seeing as politics is such a man’s world.” 

Of Mamuju’s 35 DPRD legislators, just 6 are women. It’s something Suraidah would like to change.

“It is vital to have more women in politics, because who understands what women need better than women? It can be difficult for men to find that voice.”

Before long, Suraidah found herself head of her party and later, head of the parliament, a post she will keep until 2019.

Today, Suraidah strives to be a voice for women and children by embracing her past and the perspective it’s shaped. She is a strong believer, for example, that all girls have the right to an education on how to protect their bodies.

“If it’s not there [already], we must advocate with schools [to introduce education] on it, she says. 

“Reproductive health knowledge has to be delivered, because young people are very vulnerable.” 

She plans to use 2018 to shine a light on issues facing women, especially the issue of child neglect. She herself has adopted an abandoned child, and is in the process of formalizing the adoption with local authorities.

“Next year I also have [plans to support] an advocacy programme for teenagers. I want to motivate youth to know that even though I married young [and was able to get an education], not everyone was as lucky as I was.”

Engaging the public will be key to stopping the child marriage cycle.

“We need to advocate to the community that marriage must first be fully established in the soul and the body. If the body is not mature, there will be health problems, like [higher] maternal and child mortality rates, for example,” she says. 

Research shows that complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second-leading cause of death for girls between ages 15 and 19. 

“We need more discussion on child marriage, and I’m someone who is willing to do that,” she says. 

“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.” 

“Not everyone could have survived like I did.”