The Indonesian parliament on Monday raised minimum marriage age for girls from 16 to 19 years, as the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation responded to pressure to end child weddings.
The House of Representatives’ revision of a 1974 law on marriage was welcomed by officials and activists in a country where, according to the United Nations children agency UNICEF, on average more than 3,500 Indonesian girls are married every day.
Under the revised law, marriageable age for boys remained unchanged at 19.
“All 10 factions agreed that the minimal marriageable age for men and women is 19 years,” legislator Totok Daryanto told reporters.
Exceptions can be made for those younger than 19 with court approval, he said.
Legislators from the Muslim-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the United Development Party initially proposed a minimum marriage age of 18 for girls, but they relented.
About 14 percent of girls in Indonesia are married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF, citing 2017 data. Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest country with 260 million people, has the eighth highest absolute number of child brides in the world, at almost 1.5 million, the U.N. agency said.
Marriage of girls below 15 has shown the largest decline since 2008, whereas marriage among girls 16 to 17 years old has not changed significantly, according to Indonesia’s National Socioeconomic Survey, citing a national sample of about 200,000 households.
“After 45 years, we’re finally seeing changes in the law that will protect Indonesian children’s future,” Yohana Yambise, the minister of women's empowerment and child protection, told reporters.
Previous attempts by non-government organizations and women's rights activists to increase the marriageable age for girls to 18 were unsuccessful.
In 2015, the Constitutional Court rejected such a petition, arguing that Islam and other religions did not set the minimum age for marriage, and that puberty is usually an indication that girls are ready for marriage.
But in December last year, the same court ordered the legislature to increase the marriage age for girls, in response to a petition filed by former child brides and gender-rights activists.
UNICEF said its data indicates that acceptance of child marriage occurs at all economic levels in Indonesian society. In 2015, nearly one in eight girls who married before the age of 18 were from households with the highest levels of expenditure, it said.
While poverty is a major factor, young girls are also married off by their wealthy parents in some parts of the country because of traditional beliefs, such as the notion that women who do not get married young will end up being spinsters and therefore embarrass the family, according to experts.
Nina Nurmila, a member of the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), said the minimum marriage age should have been raised to 21 for both men and women.
The challenge is to get religious courts across the country to stick to the new law, she told BenarNews.
“We know many parents still deem marrying off their children at a young age to be preferable,” she said.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.