How Social Media is Romanticizing Child Marriage in Indonesia

This article was first published on Fempower Movement.

Last year in July, Indonesian netizens were shocked by an Instagram post that showed a 15-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy posing together as a bride and groom.

The photo was taken at a village in South Kalimantan province of Indonesia. The two teenagers were married after they met at a night market.

Two months later, in September, the news of another wedding of a 13-year-old girl with a 17-year-old boy in the village of South Sulawesi province went viral on social media.

These two cases are not rare. They reflect the dire problem of early age marriage in Indonesia.

The share of child marriages in Indonesia is the second highest in Southeast Asia, behind Cambodia, and seventh in the world.

The Indonesian marriage law stipulates that the minimum marital age for girls is 16 and 19 for boys. But younger children can marry after seeking permission from their parents.

Child marriages disproportionately affect girls. A study conducted by UNICEF and the Indonesian statistics agency shows that a quarter of women and girls in Indonesia have been married before the age of 18.

There are several factors that contribute to early age marriages. Poverty is one of those. Girls are considered an economic burden on the family, and marrying them off is seen as an easy way to relieve that burden. Child marriages also reflect the high degree of gender inequality in the family as well as in the society regarding the consent for marriage. While boys are asked for their consent, girls are usually ignored.

Child marriage has a negative health impact on girls. High rates of child marriage are associated with high rates of maternal and infant mortality. Indonesia’s maternal mortality rate, reaching 305 per 100,000 births, is the second highest in Asia while the infant mortality rate, 24 per 1,000 live births, is among the highest in the region. These marriages are also linked to stunting. The provinces with a high percentage of child marriages also have a high rate of stunting.

Despite the risks, Indonesia has seen a massive campaign on child marriage in the past decade that romanticizes and glorifies it, particularly through social media. Accounts such as Gerakan Nikah Muda (the Early Marriage Movement), with 388,000 followers on Instagram, and Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran (Indonesia Without Dating), with more than 2.2 million followers on Instagram and Facebook, are actively playing their role in reaching out to the young, tech-savvy population.

The Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran (ITP) movement posted memes that said, “If you’re married, your wife will make your breakfast. But if you are single, who is going to make you breakfast?”

The Instagram account Gerakan Nikah Muda (the Early Marriage Movement) posts images that encourage people to marry at a young age. The messaging from these two accounts is based on the idea that premarital sex is sinful and could result in unwanted pregnancies, and the only way to avoid it is early marriage or even forsaking dating altogether.

The campaign also positions marriage as an answer and solution for all problems of life. A meme from a hijab fashion house, Ukhti Sally, says:

“Thirsty? Drink.

Hungry? Eat.

Have no money? Get married.

So someone can provide for you.”

These memes are clearly targeting young girls and boys. These memes not only encourages them to marry in early age but also emphasize rigid gender roles which affirm that it is a man’s job to provide for the family while women are expected to stay at home, be responsible for household chores and to take care of the husband’s needs at home.

According to Siti Musdah Mulia, a professor from Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta, social media accounts like Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran are a product of a radical ideology.

“Radical groups bring in religious views that degrade women,” she says.

In a recent study by Center for the Study of Religion and Culture (CSRC) UIN Syariah Hidayatullah Jakarta also published their findings about today’s behaviour towards religion on social media: Kaum Muda Muslim Milenial: Konservatisme, Hibridasi Identitas dan Tantangan Radikalisme (Young Milenial Muslim: Conservatism, Identity hybrid and Challenges of Radicalism). In their findings, it says that social media plays a role in the increasing radicalism in society. Young people are more prone to be exposed to ideas of radicalism through the internet.

According to the research “Hoot Suite: We Are Social”, Indonesia is one of the biggest internet users in the world. Out of 260 million people, 132.7 million people use the internet daily. Atleast 130 million use the internet to access social media platforms. On average, people spend 3 hours 23 minutes on social media daily. The most used social media apps in Indonesia are YouTube (43%), Facebook (41%), Whatsapp (40%) and Instagram (38%).

Now, let’s do some maths: If 49.7% of the Indonesian population is based on female, then there are 64.61 million Indonesian women who have access to social media. 25% of the Indonesian female population who are married before the age of 18 is equivalent to 33 million women. It makes roughly half of female social media users.

The ITP movement runs assorted online activities such as giving advice and consultations via WhatsApp. They don’t limit their campaigns to advocating early marriage only. They also tell women to cover their bodies with “Sharia hijab”, reject celebrating Valentine’s Day and even New Year’s Day. They also organize offline activities, such as helping its members find a marriageable partner, approaching unmarried couples who are dating in public and telling them to stop dating. The ITP movement is a massive business. Its profit is estimated to be around 2 billion to 3 billion rupiahs. The ITP founder, La Ode Munafar, uses the platform to sell his books, ITP memberships, and merchandises.

Although the campaign promoting early age marriages sends some self-motivational messages to improve their quality of life before marriage, however, there are little discussions on child marriages and these rigid gender roles could lead to domestic violence; divorces; public health risks, ranging from maternal and infant mortality and stunting; and poverty.

Although the Ministry of Education has stated that married minors can still continue education, 94% of girls who have married quit school to take care of the family.

In fact, according to La Ode, girls are allowed to be married as soon as they start to menstruate because menstruation is a sign of maturity. This means that girls as young as 9 years old are eligible for marriage.

In a society obsessed with virginity, the claim that dating causes premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies is a thinly veiled attempt to target and control the lives of young women. Women are also encouraged to “save” their virginity for their husband and once they are married they belong at home to “serve” him.

For years, women’s rights activists have been urging the government to amend the marriage law and increase the minimum age for women marriage to 19 years, on par with that of men. In 2014, the Constitutional Court refused to step in. They said that they couldn’t interfere with religious teachings.

In November 2018, a Supreme Court justice who is also the top court’s spokesman said they couldn’t prohibit minors from marrying because “each individual has the right to get married”.

There is hope though. The Supreme Court ruled in December 2018 that the parliament should revise the marriage law within three years. If it doesn’t meet the deadline, the minimum age requirement would be made consistent with the 2002 child protection law which defines someone younger than 18 as a child.

Although this is a promising, and a potentially important game-changer, the fight to end child marriage is still a long way to go. The massive online campaign targeting young people, especially young women is alarming and may even lead to a higher number of child marriages in the future.

The government is well aware of the dangers and risks of child marriage. They have termed it “the phase of national emergency”. However, nothing is being done about the massive online campaigning in Indonesia favoring early age marriage. No matter what they do on grounds to discourage child marriages, if they are not working against these online campaigns, the fight against child marriage has little chances to succeed.