In a move that could have far-reaching implications for this Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation is backing efforts to change the legal marriage age for girls from 16 to 18.
According to Sudibyo Alimoeso, the chairman of the National Population and Family Planning Agency (BKKBN), he and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) chairman Said Aqil Siroj discussed joining efforts to advocate for a revision of the 1974 marriage law during a February 12th meeting at NU headquarters in Jakarta.
The law states that girls may marry at age 16 and young men at age 19. As such, it is incompatible with a 2002 law on child protection, establishing that anybody below age 18 is a child, the BKKBN chief argued.
"A girl age 16 is still considered a child, and we should protect a child," he said.
"The head of the NU welcomed my suggestion... his opinion is that 18 years old is good enough, because at least (the girls) have graduated from high school."
Ready for marriage?
Farida Faricha, head of the NU female student association (IPPNU), confirmed to Khabar Southeast Asia that Said agreed on raising the legal marriage age for girls at the BKKBN meeting, which she attended.
"He also said that it would be further discussed within the organisation," Farida said, adding her opinion that child protection laws and the 1974 marriage law should be "synchronised".
Kunthi Tridewiyanti, head of the law and policy reform division of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), questioned whether girls younger than 18 are mentally, physically, psychologically, and economically ready for marriage and child-bearing.
Many consider the 1974 marriage law outdated, she argued. "As a first step, it was good," Kunthi said. But now that it is almost forty years old, "it is necessary to revise the law."
An opposing view came from Muslimah Hizb ut-Tahrir – the women's wing of the hardline organisation Hizbut Tahrir. Iffah Ainur Rochmah, a spokeswoman for the organisation, criticised the idea of amending the marriage law.
"In Islam, a woman who is balig (has had her first period) is as responsible as an adult, including for marriage issues," she said, adding: "In Islam, there is no rule of minimum age, either 18 years old, or even 16 years old, as stated in Law Number 1, Year 1974."
The risk for young mothers
Sudibyo said girls who marry before finishing school damage their economic prospects. It is more difficult for a woman to find a decent job without graduating, he said.
He also linked teenage marriage to the country's Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR). Indonesia ranks third worst among ASEAN countries for MMR, with a rate of 220 deaths per 100,000 births, according to 2010 World Bank figures.
The Health Ministry registered 4,986 cases of maternal mortality in 2012, with 6.9% of the women below the age of 20.
Sudibyo said that one of the factors that contributed to high MMR is birth given by young mothers. "We are worried it will contribute to maternal mortality," he added.
Teaching reproductive health
To overcome that issue, BKKBN is extending its programme to provide more Consultation and Information Centres to educate teenagers on reproductive health.
To date, approximately 16,000 centres are operating in high schools all over Indonesia.
This year, BKKBN wishes to go further and expand its project to younger students at the junior high school levels and pesantrens. "That is one of the reasons I held the discussion with Nahdlatul Ulama, because the organisation is the basis for pesantrens," Sudibyo said.
"I think if we are teaching them well about reproductive health, they can grow to be responsible people," he continued.
Nevertheless, the challenge is big. The subject is not popular and considered taboo in Indonesia due to its relation to sexual activity.
Ratih Kusumawati, a 35 year-old Muhammadiyah follower, said that Islam promotes education – which can be cut short by early marriage.
"I do not think at the age of 16 you are able to provide emotional and financial stability to support a child. Remember, Islam encourages each of its followers to obtain a good education," she told Khabar.
She agreed that the marriage law in Indonesia needs some revision.
"I hope our young generation will seriously consider this issue and properly ensure our children's education. Our nation's future depends on them," Ratih said.
Despite the advocacy, the issue is not likely to see legislative action anytime soon. The law is "not yet scheduled for discussion this year" in the House of Representatives (DPR), according to Ida Fauziah, head of House Commission VIII overseeing religion and social affairs.