TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Rukayah held her crying 10monthold son in an attempt to soothe him. Sitting beside her was her three-year-old daughter. At 20, Rukayah has been married three times. "I was 15 when I married the first time," she told Tempo English last month.
Like many other villages in Central Lombok, Tanjung Karang Permai applies a special 'curfew' just for teen girls. Getting home past curfew time is frowned upon by residents of this conservative, Muslim majority region.
When Rukayah was still in middle school, her 17yearold boyfriend, whom she had known for only three weeks, took her home on his motorcycle past the curfew hour. Her parents saw and forced her to marry the boy before the neighbors started gossiping.
The wedding took place not long after and the young couple dropped out of school. Rukayah said they were not happy because they were too young. Neither had steady a job and had to be supported by their parents. "We got divorced within two years," she said.
But being a young divorcée was no better for Rukayah. Worried their daughter might not be able to remarry if she stayed single too long, her parents encouraged her to accept the proposal of a neighbor who had asked for her hand. He was in his early 20s and Rukayah thought he could be reliable. She said yes.
A daughter soon came along, but their union did not last. She quickly discovered her husband was abusive. He would hit and kick her about whenever he got upset. "I could not stand it any longer and asked for a divorce," she said.
Rukayah got married for the third time two years ago. She gave birth to her second child not long after. To support her children, she went to work as a domestic help in the village. Though still legally married, her third husband left her without providing for his newborn son.
Rukayah regrets not finishing school because it is proving hard for her to find a job with a good salary. "My parents are still helping me out. I've gone back to living with them," she said.
Stories like Rukayah's are common in rural West Nusa Tenggara (NTB). Although in Rukayah's case, she was forced into marriage, many young teenage couples opt to marry early of their own accord. The community's conservative attitude and a local tradition called merariq-the literal translation being 'kidnapping the future bride'-are the main reasons for the practice.
Based on merariq custom, a boy can take a girl away from her house for a night, or at least past curfew. When that happens, the girl is obliged to marry the boy, or else the young couple is considered a disgrace to both families and the wider society. Though unintentional, Rukayah's first marriage was the result of merariq as seen by her community.
This custom is the main reason Yayasan Tunas Alam Indonesia (the Indonesian Nature Foundation), going by it contracted name of Santai, initiated a campaign to raise the marriage age in NTB. Suharti, Santai's director, said the foundation began work in the region in 2014 with the help of Oxfam, who provided funding and technical assistance.
Santai, which was established in 1986, began devising a strategy to combat the practice of tooearly marriage. The foundation decided the most effective approach would be to apply a village customary law, an awigawig. "Awigawig is usually drafted by the community and all the villagers are compelled to abide by it," she said.
It was not easy at first. Most child marriages are enacted as soon as the bride or groom reach 16, the legal age for females to get married under Law No. 1/1974 on Marriage. But in contradiction, Law No. 23/2002 on Child Protection considers youngsters below the age of 18 as still children.
For their pilot, Santai approached local religious leaders in Kekait village, to get them to initiate an awigawig. They cited their recent survey, which showed that in the past 10 years, 139 child marriages had occurred in Kekait.
Santai also pointed out how child marriages proved to not last long. Their statistics showed, around 50 percent of early marriages ended in divorce. Suharti noted one case where a couple was married for exactly one night.
"It took almost a year to raise the community's awareness. Finally some people started to agree that the minimum marital age should indeed be increased," related Suharti.
To bolster their campaign, Santai initiated the Youth Forum for Increasing Marriage Age (Forum Pemuda Peduli Pendewasaan Usia Anak) to get the support of teenagers, the most vulnerable group in the issue. Santai and the forum held regular group sessions to discuss the importance of teens completing their education and not going into too-early marriage. (*)