Child marriages on the rise in Indonesia amid Covid-19 outbreak

Publication Date: 
October 7, 2020

Child marriages on the rise in Indonesia amid Covid-19 outbreak

Despite a legal amendment to raise the legal age for marriage in Indonesia from 16 to 19, child-marriages remain relatively unchecked in the archipelago nation. UNICEF reported that Indonesia ranks 8th globally with regard to the quantity of child marriages. An amalgam of players are thought to affect this trend including traditional and cultural beliefs, gender dynamics, and economic factors. 

In “Child marriages on the rise in Indonesia amid Covid-19 outbreak”, published in The Straits Times, and “More Indonesian Child Brides Amid Pandemic?” of The ASEAN Post, there is an emphasis on the way in which the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic determinant of child marriage. Families already living in poverty have been hit by retrenchment, wage cuts, and job loss. Whether it’s families thrusted into poverty in the wake of pandemic-induced economic downfall, or families already living in poverty, child marriage is sometimes seen as a remedial option to lessen household costs and responsibility of care, and generally reduce economic burden. Furthermore, pandemic-related impact on education has played into this trend. Education and schooling is often looked to as a prominent focus in the fight against child marriage. One of the most commonly referenced interventions in addressing child marriage is increased education for girls. However, Covid-caused school closings add significant risk to children dropping out of school. This impact in the classroom compounded with rising economic burden is thought to be linked with the significant spike in child marriage applications observed in Indoensia thus far in the year. This spike, which reaches nearly 24,000 official applications for child marriages and an estimated 33,000 child marriages in 2020, runs against the overall downward trend seen over the past years in Indonesia.

I found a YouTube video by the South China Morning Post that summarized some of these findings as well. What caught my eye, in addition to the shocking statistics, was the comment section full of, “Don’t breed if you can’t feed,” and, “If they’d just stop having kids it would end.” These comments stem directly from the neoliberal conception of individualized responsibility and blame. My issue with these comments is, of course, not at all a disguised way to excuse or detract from the severity of the practice of child marriage in itself, but rather it comes from the way in which the comments unjustly simplify the dynamics that play into child marriage. Rather than citing parental choice as the fundamental cause of this phenomenon, how can we understand the underlying framework and pressures that create a culture in which child marriage is seen as a viable solution for economic burden? What institutional patterns lead to the levels of poverty that sequentially lead to child marriage?

Another stream of questions that this reading sparked applies more generally to child marriage and the (in)ability to apply Western notions of gender equality and feminism to ASEAN countries. As a forewarning, I want to make clear that none of these questions or thoughts necessarily apply directly to child marriage, but simply arise as byproducts of reading these articles.

I think most would agree that child marriage, for example, is wrong, but where is it okay to draw the line of right and wrong when dealing with non-Western “cultural” practices? If our conceptions of right vs. wrong and human rights are rooted in Western ideology and practice, can that be translated to non-Western practices, and if so, how? I think this ties into the common theme that has emerged in the past few weeks in this class regarding the need to be actively conscientious of our innately and overwhelmingly Western lens in understanding social dynamics in ASEAN countries. How does our dialogue on the Westernization of modernity apply to feminism and gender equity? While the fundamental ideal of gender equality may be universal (is it?), how does/can/should its manifestation look different across countries? In questioning this, however, we cannot sacrifice legitimate equality under an unfounded guise of “cultural understanding.” 


Ryan Huynh