In Indonesia, a New Tool is Being Used to Fight Child Marriage

In Indonesia, local communities are bringing together information from a broad range of sources to prevent child and teen marriage. Photo: ADB
In Indonesia, local communities are bringing together information from a broad range of sources to prevent child and teen marriage. Photo: ADB

By Claudia Buentjen, Kate Walton

Local officials can now find information from all sectors, such as health, education, women’s empowerment, child protection, and human rights and law, to help them address child and teen marriage in their area.

One in six girls in Indonesia marry before the age of 18. While the average age at first marriage is increasing overall, this means that as many as 340,000 girls are still married off every year before their 18th birthday. What’s more, UNICEF estimates that around 50,000 of these girls are below the age of 15 when they marry.

Child marriage can have serious and long-lasting negative effects. When an adolescent girl becomes pregnant, this can have significant impacts on her schooling, health (due to complications from childbirth), and job opportunities, affecting her future life and income. Any children she gives birth to are also at risk, with infant mortality, stunting, and low birth weight more common to babies of teenage girls.

Child marriage in Indonesia happens for a wide variety of reasons. Cultural-religious factors are a primary influence - parents and children alike worry about the risk of sin (in the form of pre-marital sex) as well as marrying ‘too late’ or perhaps not finding a partner at all. A family’s economic status also plays a key role, with poor and near-poor families more likely to marry off girls in order to reduce their financial burden.

A limited understanding of reproductive health further complicates matters, with many youths having insufficient knowledge about their bodies and how pregnancy occurs. Myths abound, such as that a woman cannot get pregnant the first time she has sex, or that jumping up and down after sex will stop a pregnancy from occurring. Parents and teachers alike are hesitant to talk about puberty, sex, and relationships, and often view the topics as taboo or worry that open discussion will encourage young people to ‘experiment’.

That said, the influencing factors behind child marriage vary significantly across Indonesia, and, even within the same province, different districts can face dramatically different problems. In East Java, for example, ADB works in two districts to help local governments develop tools to better understand and respond to child marriage. Despite their geographic proximity, the reasons behind child marriage are different: in one district, child marriage occurs primarily as a result of cultural pressure for children to marry young, while in the other, it is more commonly due to teenage pregnancy. These two districts have two of the highest rates of child marriage in the province, with 25%-35% of girls marrying before the age of 18.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 focuses on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. The elimination of child marriage is targeted by SDG 5.3, which covers “elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage, and elimination of female genital mutilation”. Although Indonesia has committed to achieving the SDGs and has made good progress so far, there has been no coordinated effort yet at a national level to achieve goal 5.3. Small local government-led and civil society-led efforts are having an effect but are restricted in their reach. There are a few reasons for this: limited budget for child marriage-related activities in government institutions; a lack of understanding of the underlying causes of child marriage and its negative impacts; poor data on child marriage and related development indicators; and limited coordination between stakeholders to work as a united front.


In the province of East Java, local governments and civil society are working to overcome some of these obstacles by developing “dashboards” on child marriage and related indicators. The dashboards were developed with ADB support and the full involvement of provincial and district stakeholders who decided what data was important for them to know and how they would like to see it presented. The dashboards use data from all local government offices. This is a crucial change in information sharing, as many offices do not regularly share data, leading to an inadequate picture of the problem. A survey was also conducted at several high schools to gain information on students’ understanding of reproductive health, women’s rights, and child marriage. The dashboards have been uploaded to local government websites for all residents to access.

Now that these local governments and civil society representatives have a better and fuller picture of the child marriage situation in their districts, they are working to develop a cross-sectoral practical manual that would help them develop campaigns and activities capable of ending child marriage. During our work on the project, they told us that there is no single document that contains information from all sectors, such as health, education, women’s empowerment, child protection, and human rights and law, which makes it hard for them to put together an effective program. The manual is currently in the final stages of development and contains information on youth reproductive health, children’s and women’s rights, and the dangers of child marriage.

While the highest adolescent birth rates globally are seen in Africa and birthrates are falling rapidly across the globe, much remains to be done in the Asia-Pacific region to achieve goal 5.3 by 2030. Based on 2017 World Bank data, the global average adolescent birth rate was 42 births per 1000 girls aged 15 to 19.  There is huge variance at country level, and adolescent birth rates above the global average are found in Bangladesh (83), Afghanistan (69), Lao People’s Democratic Republic (65), Nepal (65), Tajikistan (57), Philippines (54), Cambodia (50), Fiji (49), Vanuatu (49) Thailand (45), Indonesia (47), and Georgia (46).

A couple of useful lessons are emerging from the East Java project.

First, the project confirmed the importance of localizing the SDGs, in particular the need to increase the role of local government stakeholders. The province of East Java has shown strong leadership and has provided the platform for a series of workshops involving provincial and district offices for health, education, social protection, and women’s empowerment. These cross-sectoral approaches are important as child marriage cannot be handled by one agency alone. Working with multiple stakeholders requires transparency and equal access to information by all, and in East Java, this culminated in the dashboards to which all agencies contributed their available data.

Second, given the cultural sensitivity and complexity of the issues involved, it has been essential to not only work with government offices but to also involve non-government stakeholders such as religious courts and youth representatives. Throughout the project, all stakeholders were encouraged to openly express their views, articulate their needs, and contribute to solutions. Significant time and workshop budgets were needed to generate the data and reach consensus on the best approaches to project design and implementation.

Third, data and statistics are important tools for devising evidence-based policies to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. Of the 232 SDG indicators, 54 are gender-specific. According to UN Women, one-third of these gender-specific indicators cover ‘emerging statistical areas’ where measurement methodology is not well-developed. Additionally, while almost half of the 54 gender-specific indicators have developed methodologies, limited country-level data continues to hinder global monitoring. The project in East Java confirmed this observation. Despite full access to all available local level data, the project encountered significant data gaps that could be closed with local surveys and that also required some consideration about methodologies.

In Indonesia, it is encouraging to see that on the legal front, there is also some bright news from the legislature at the national level: following years of lobbying from women’s activists, the Indonesian National Parliament agreed in September to revise the 1974 Marriage Law to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls from 16 to 19 years old. This brings the age for girls in line to that for boys, which was already 19 years. This sends an important signal and should help reduce the number of child marriages, although an article allowing ‘dispensation’ for children under the legal age remains in place, allowing parents to request approval from their local Religious Court.

Ultimately, this shows that while legal progress is apparent and there is political will to end child marriage, significant socio-cultural influences must still be addressed if Indonesia wishes to achieve SDG 5.3 by the year 2030.