PHOTO: This 15-year-old boy and his 14-year-old bride made national news when a religious court granted them permission to be married. (Supplied: TribunNews)
Indonesian President Joko Widodo is facing calls to speed up an end to child marriages as experts warn the situation has reached “emergency” point.
The push comes amid reports that Indonesian girls as young as 14 are still getting married in the country.
Although the legal age for marriage is 19 for men and 16 for girls, a loophole allows an exception for underage couples if they are given permission by a religious court.
Mr Widodo has the power to overrule an existing law by issuing a “Perppu”, or presidential decree, which he said last month he would pursue “as soon as possible”.
The University of Indonesia’s Sulistyowati Irianto said the rate of child marriages had hit a state of “emergency”, with more underage couples getting married in recent months.
“The President has to consider political landscapes at the moment, but I hope the Perppu will be issued soon,” Dr Irianto told the ABC.
Altering the status quo risks upsetting sections of the community, especially religious groups.
But calls for urgent change have been fuelled by an Indonesian Government/UNICEF report estimating 17 per cent of Indonesian girls were married before the age of 18.
Debate back in spotlight as 14yo marries 15yo
The debate was thrown back into the spotlight when the marriage of a 14-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy in Sulawesi went viral, prompting the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry to intervene.
According to CNN Indonesia, the intervention failed, and the couple were wed despite the high-profile calls to stop the ceremony.
Another case in Sulawesi saw a 16-year-old boy marry a 14-year-old girl after gaining a dispensation from a local religious court.
A similar situation also took place in Lombok when a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy were wed by their parents.
The exceptions granted by the Marriage Act are “misused by many underage couples to get married”, local Lombok official Muhammad Idrus said.
Belief adulthood ‘begins at first period’
Dr Irianto was invited earlier this month, along with other experts, to the presidential office in Jakarta to discuss how the Government could end underage marriages.
“The President is under pressure because he wants to crack down on this practice, but he is well aware that politically, it is very sensitive to revise marriage law,” Dr Irianto told the ABC.
Dr Irianto said some parents gave their approval based on a cultural perception of adulthood, believing it started when a girl had her period for the first time.
That was the case for the parents of a 12-year-old girl and her 21-year-old partner in Sinjai, a district in South Sulawesi province.
The families said the girl was ready to be a bride, but as news went viral on social media, local authorities quickly moved to prevent the wedding.
The would-be bride’s father told local media that the marriage was cancelled because no civil or religious registry was willing to carry out the wedding.
Mr Idrus, the Lombok official, said some parents of underage couples gave their approval in order to prevent sexual relationships outside marriage.
“Usually judges in religious courts would agree to this argument based on moral grounds,” he said.
This exception, according to Dr Irianto, is a loophole in the law that can be revised by a presidential decree.