Married and a housewife, at just 15
By Marlies Pilon
Siti (16) is sitting on the veranda of her house in a village in West Java. It’s her favourite place. Looking across the green hills laced with banana trees, the Indian Ocean is just visible in the distance. Between the intermittent noises of domestic animals and motorised vehicles, you can hear the soft caress of the sea on the beach.
They would sit here chatting for hours, every day; Siti and her best friend. They were classmates and shared good times and bad. But all that changed last year, when her girlfriend received a flirty Facebook message on her phone. They giggled together as they read it. He was 24, but she was 10 years younger. Her girlfriend thought he was cute though, and she was flattered.
The two exchanged photos, Likes and heart emojis; the type of communication that would be impossible there offline. In conservative West Java, walking hand-in-hand or dating is taboo, while sex before marriage is called zinā and seen as “unclean” in the eyes of Islam. For these, and other reasons, many Javanese youngsters communicate through the digital world.
Unfortunately, those heart emojis were not without repercussions. One thing led to another and the two lovebirds started dating. As soon as the mother of Siti’s girlfriend got wind of the situation, marriage was on the cards. Better to marry young than risk sex before marriage, is the general consensus among Indonesian parents.
“I knew that my girlfriend didn’t want to get married; she wanted to finish school,” says Siti, shifting slightly on the veranda and straightening her light pink nikab. “She was also a bit frightened of the man,” she whispers. Then, more assertively: “I had to confront her mother about the situation.”
Significant health risks
Indonesia boasts the dubious honour of having one of the highest number of child brides in the world. No fewer than 1.4 million Indonesian girls have found their way to the altar before reaching the age of 18, often against their will. Child marriage is a serious violation of a girl’s rights and often has life-long consequences for the victim. She can forget about finishing school and without an education or income she will later become completely dependent on her husband and his family. Moreover, a young girl will often have to contend with domestic violence and have babies while her body is not really ready for pregnancy or childbirth. All this brings significant health risks.
Broaching sensitive issues
It is because of these reasons that the Yes I Do Alliance has trained hundreds of young people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Indonesia to become peer educators. Functioning as role models, these youngsters are then well-positioned to broach sensitive issues, like child marriages, with their peers. Siti also attended these trainings, which is what spurred her to try to help her girlfriend.
In the context of the Yes I Do Alliance, Plan International Nederland collaborates with Rutgers, Amref Flying Doctors, Choice for Youth and Sexuality, KIT Royal Tropical Institute and the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs to tackle gender inequality, poverty and the flouting of girls’ rights. These lie at the heart of problems such as child marriages and teenage pregnancies. The programme started in 2016 and runs till the end of 2020, and is being implemented in Indonesia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya and Ethiopia.
When Siti went to her girlfriend’s house her mother refused to discuss the subject with her and made it clear that her interference was unwelcome. But Siti wasn't about to give up so easily. Instead, she reported the case to the Komisi (Commission) Perlingdungan Anak Desa (KPAD). This is a local social movement founded by the Yes I Do Alliance to defend the rights of children and young people in the village.
The KPAD team then managed to convince the mother that her daughter must finish her education. Unfortunately, the joy fuelled by this minor victory was short-lived. Almost immediately after Siti’s 15-year-old girlfriend successfully completed junior high school (comparable to the first part of high school) she was married off.
Siti soon moved up to the second part of high school, but her girlfriend had to move in with the family of her new husband, in a different village. “She is now a 15-year-old housewife. As a married woman she says she can’t even leave the house without her husband’s permission,” Siti laments as she gazes at the sea. The two friends sometimes communicate with one another through Facebook.
The fate of her girlfriend has strengthened Siti’s resolve to combat child marriages. “I’ve noticed that youngsters in the village who participate in the Yes I Do programme are in a much stronger position,” she insists. “They learn things about their own bodies, how to set boundaries, and how to discuss this subject with their parents without feeling awkward. When a boy tried to touch me recently, I told him to keep his hands off me, which is something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing a year ago.”
Dare to dream
And how about Siti herself? What does the future hold for a peer educator? “I want to continue learning and be an entrepreneur,” she says enthusiastically, “preferably in the field of cooking.” Her specialties, apparently, are bakso (meatballs in beef broth) and seblak (chicken in spicy sauce with prawn crackers). “Now, I no longer dream of a wedding dress, but of running my own business,” she says proudly.
For more information about the programme go to: Yes I Do