Dr. Mia Siscawati:

The Prevention of Child Marriage Practices Requires 

Cooperation from Various Parties

Dr. Mia Siscawati, commonly called by her maiden name Mia, was born in Jakarta on May 29, 1969. The mother of 4 children graduated from the Faculty of Forestry at IPB (Bogor Agricultural University) and then obtained her master’s degrees from two universities in the U.S., each in the Study Program of Gender and Development at Brandeis University and in the field of Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of Washington, where she eventually continued to earn her Ph.D. A researcher in the field of rural women and the environment who has done a lot of studies about gender inequality and inequality of land proprietorship is active in various organizations of social movements related to women and the environment. Among others, she became one of the founders of Indonesian Young Foresters (RMI), a board member at Yayasan Bina Desa, a founder and a volunteer at Perempuan AMAN (the Alliance of Indigenous People of Nusantara) and a member of the Kapal Perempuan (alternative education circle for women) Institute. Since 2014 until now, she has been trusted to become the Head of Study Program (Kaprodi) of Gender Studies at UI (University of Indonesia). Here’s the interview of Swara Rahima with Mrs. Mia:

In 2015, the Study Program of Gender Studies at UI held a Seminar and Workshop on Child Marriage. Can you tell me the background of why the event was held and what interesting things were discussed in the forum?

The background of why the event was held is because the issue of child marriage is an issue that has long existed and continues to be the attention of us all. If you remember, there are situations where our friends in the social movements, especially women led by Yayasan Kesehatan Perempuan (Women’s Health Foundation) try to file a Judicial Review (JR) against Law No.1 / 1974 on Marriage. Well, it was held in order to support the Judicial Review and also as a reflection that there have been a lot of studies about child marriage before 2015. We need to think about how we can sit together again and see what the studies have actually achieved? How can the results of those studies be used to support social movements. Either for those engaged in policy advocacy or those engaged in empowerment at the grassroots level who are trying to build critical awareness, both among women and among other social groups so that the tradition can stop. In general, the background is for us to see where our current position is in relation to those studies and what needs to be reviewed again?

The workshop is in the form of exchange or sharing of information, to update the progress of the issues. In the workshop, we invite certain people who are considered to have been involved in the issue long enough, including friends who appealed for Judicial Review, as well as friends working at the grassroots level for the framework of action. That is the glimpse of our activities. Obviously, the reason is in order for us who are from various backgrounds can be gathered, either academics or activists, as well as friends who work in the government agencies, at that time there were some officials from the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection (KPP & PA) who were also present.

What is the interesting result of the meeting?

Child marriage is not a simple problem. It is very complex, has a variety of faces, and is not caused by a single factor. So we cannot uniform the cause, not only caused by poverty but also impoverishment, also culture, religious interpretations, there is also a different understanding of the religious teachings that make many parents control their daughters and encourage their daughters to get married early in order to avoid adultery. Even worse, there is a phenomenon in a certain community that makes a girl feels very left behind compared with her friends if she has not been proposed.

There is also aspect related to policy and legal aspect. For example, education-related policy, even though we already have a compulsory 9 years of basic education, but some research shows parents need to pay for supporting children’s education. For example, because the location of the middle school is far, parents should provide transportation costs for their children. Or because the place is too far then the parents must provide the cost of the rented room for their children. Well, when it happens to girls, many parents feel worried when their children live in a rented room, afraid if undesirable things happen.

So there are so many situations underlying child marriage. Especially when seen from the perspective of law and policy. At the 2015 workshop, it was revealed that the age of 16 years old was easy to forge. For example, the age of the girl is 14 years old, but the penghulu (marriage officiant) and some other officials feel no problem when the child’s age is forged from 14 to 16 years old. It was also discussed during the workshop that the legal protection efforts must deal with certain parties that we all know that raising the minimum marriage age is considered incompatible with the understanding of a particular teaching.

Given the complexity of the problem, it was also discussed that the joint effort cannot only be done in one or two domains. So the effort in the field of policy change must continue, but there are other spheres that need to be constantly touched. At that time, we also discussed how strong we really are (although the discussion was not in detail), but I observe that our power indeed lies in the social movement, though limited. So maybe what needs to be done is to start inviting other parties who have not been in our circle.

Mrs. Saparinah Sadli always feels concerned, why in this kind of discussion the participants who attend are always the same people, only us and us again? Because the problem is complex, big, the effort must be complex and diverse, through various paths and approaches, entering the various domains. We do have to develop a strategy together. If we continue to be average, maybe the tradition will still be repeated, meaning that the change may not be too soon.

Oh yes, there’s one more, but maybe it is more related to the issue of sexuality. Child marriage is caused by two reasons, first because of unwanted pregnancy problems (KTD). Second, it occurs because of the various things, impoverishment, tradition, religious interpretation, etc. In connection with unwanted pregnancy, the issue discussed at that time was about sexuality education, which also suffered a setback. During the workshop there was a sharing that there is a phenomenon when learning Biology, there are some schools (I forgot where the school was, and I also forgot whether it was in a public school or in an Islamic school), in which the skeleton of the human anatomy in their laboratory was dressed in a sarong. In other words, now learning about the anatomy of the human body is considered something taboo. That is an anecdotal story. But imagine if that is true and such phenomenon is adopted by other schools.

What causes the incessant practice of child marriage? 

During the 2015 workshop, there were presentations on impoverishment, economy, traditions, and cultures, how they interpreted religious understanding, some aspects related to the law, as well as the aspect where daughters were nervous when not yet proposed. If we talk about tradition, it is of two kinds. The first tradition associated with the parents in the sense of parents who take care and make decisions for the child, for example, the child does not want to get married but the parents take the decision for her. But there is also the phenomenon of girls who indeed adopt thoughts when they are 15 years old and no one has proposed, they become anxious.

I think the second phenomenon is still not much studied, still needs to be followed up. Why at this time, there is still a situation where the girls themselves who feel that that is the way of thinking they need hold. The research stating that girls want to get married soon instead of continuing school is still limited.

What factors encourage parents to marry off their daughters at an early age?

Still, from the result of the 2015 workshop, also from my own observation as well as reading some research results, in each region, there is a story of its own, and it is dissimilar. In the lower economic community group, economic factors will usually play a strong role. That is, there is still an understanding that girls burden their parents and because of the assumption that their role will eventually be at home, in the kitchen, and on the mattress, so there is no point for them to continue their schooling. Better to get married so that the burden of parents become lighter. That is what happens in the lower classes.

But there is also a phenomenon that prevails not in the lower classes, they are able to send their children to school, but the tradition is still strongly adhered to. By the way, there is a student of mine who writes dissertation research on this. So he deliberately sought the subjects of his research as those not coming from the lower classes, instead, he looked for the upper classes in a regency in Central Sulawesi. In a society that does not belong to a weak economy class society, the tradition actually plays a stronger role. The research of my student (still not yet finished) states that a daughter is considered to have a strong bond with her father. So the father has power over the daughter since before her marriage until she is married. And the bonds are like being in the neck. And the father must release the bond in a dignified way. This dignified way is by marriage. Well, the tradition is her parents are the ones who will choose her partner, also, parents are the ones who seem to know best when the daughter is ready to get married. In fact, these persons are quite capable to send their children to school.

It could be that, economically, he is not poor in the sense of having a decent economy, the tradition is also not as I mentioned earlier but there is a new interpretation of certain religious teachings such as the matter of adultery, and so forth. So, the parents feel that it is better arranged for the child to be married soon. Actually, the issue of religious interpretation is not a new phenomenon. Especially if there is a certain figure, such as an Ustadz (religious figure) who married off his son who was still 17 years old. I got upset to read the comments related to the news.

What might happen to boys and girls when they get married at an early age?

This is interesting. Not long ago there was a student whose thesis was about it. That is about how women victims of child marriage struggle to build autonomy over their body. So he interviewed women of all ages. The story varied. First, before they were forced to get married they tried to ‘run’, some pretended to be sick. Although those women had no power, they were still trying to foil their marriage. As mentioned in the thesis, all efforts ultimately failed. They were forced to get married. But after entering the institution of marriage they were still trying to find a way to overcome the problem. Almost all cases – in the study – mentioned at least for the first 5 years the women mourned their marriage. But there were some who while weeping finally said, “Maybe this is my way”, meaning they gave up. Usually it is the mothers who always reminded their daughters continuously, “Never mind, initially Mother was also mated. Finally I fell in love also with your father. “So there is a sort of reproducing experience. On the one hand they initially fought, then eventually they failed and lamented, then on the other hand they were advised to accept it. 

Interestingly they tried to build a dialogue with their husbands or spouses. Because there was also a case such as the following: since the marriage vow the wife did not want to be in one room with her husband. She said to her husband, “I need time, you are not a person I know.” In that case, again her parents had a role here because it was the father of the girl who felt offended because her child had not engaged in sexual relations. The father then went to the dukun (shaman) to make sure his daughter could sleep in the same room with the husband. It turns out that the father’s problem has not yet been resolved. 

So, in a simple way, the women tried to negotiate. In the process – in that thesis -, there were some women who continued their negotiations, even then – even though they became victims – they had “agency” (the agency is the ability to be themselves), slowly they could get up and said that they were child married victims. Others became leaders in their community, then advocated socialization in their community, “Do not repeat my story”. Although there were also endings in divorce because the negotiations were not successful. In this study, there was nothing to end tragically.

In a research done by Ms. Iklilah in Lombok, there was actually a tragic ending because the reproductive organ was not ready, the girl was bleeding during the first night. Initially, there was a negotiation, “I’m not ready, do not force me to sleep in the same room.” But she felt that she was under a spell cast by his Father. His father went to a shaman. Then the daughter was told to drink water. The girl said, “I do not remember anything.” And the next day she was surprised, “Why suddenly I am in the same room with my husband, huh?” That means the parents got involved in the act of violence against their daughter if indeed she felt not ready. 

What is the impact on child growth and development?

That is also what I learned from at least two studies. So, actually they (the girls, red) themselves are agitated, emotionally they have problems. They feel angry as they cannot successfully negotiate with their parents. Emotionally it means they are not steady, right? So when finally they have to get pregnant, they are teenagers that we know there is still hormonal turbulence. So, in fact, they themselves struggle to be able to raise their children. However, again in some cases, the mothers are the ones who intervene to supervise their daughter.

I think this is not an easy struggle. Because a child raises a child. There is a case where a girl is like angry then she does not want to take care of her baby, so the baby must be saved by the girl’s own mother (the grandmother).

How about for boys?

Frankly, I have not read much about the research on boys. But what I observed, the psychological burden of the boy is immense. Because suddenly he must become a husband, the head of the household and must be responsible. Although in some cases, I suspect he will still be assisted by his parents if the son is still a child. So a child is married to a child, then the parents (in the sense of parents from both sides) are the ones who will help. This means the analysis stating that parents marrying off their children will release their burden does not occur when the marriage happens between a child and a child.

Usually, parents who want to lessen their economic burden will marry off their child with someone who is considered economically well-established. Well-established here does not mean to be a Director. In the village in the lower economic class, provided that the man has a permanent job for example as a security guard, that means he is already established economically. But if marriage happens between a child and a child, especially if they are mated, not because of unwanted pregnancy, usually the parents are the ones who extend their hands. And I think this is what makes these young couples at risk because they depend on their parents and are difficult to be independent, they are socially dependent.

How is the readiness of the couple who get married at an early age to become parents?

First, we need to ask whether it is truly their own choice. Do they choose, or are they mated, or they never thought of being married at an early age? Especially because of unwanted pregnancy. So I think these three types or background typologies will differentiate their readiness.

If one ends up choosing to marry by realizing that he or she is learning to love or accept that this is the best choice, they may be a little better prepared than those due to unwanted pregnancy. What I see is that girls are better prepared to be married off and proposed by someone older. But if the couples are of the same young age, for example for a reason of falling in love or first love, or getting married after graduating from middle school, I have never had any research on this subject.

What is the impact of a child raised by parents who are still children?

Of course, there is an impact, because psychologically, the parents are still children. They are still teenagers, whose psychological turbulence still exists. So you can imagine, how they raise the child will definitely have a real impact on the child. That means they still cannot control their emotions, they cannot think of a way out if there is a problem in the household. They may be short of money, the way they deal with problems, in my opinion, will be much different from the more established couple. Well, the implications are on their children. Perhaps the children would be brought up full of scolding, unfavorable words because they have not been able to control their emotions. Because they are teenagers who are forced to become parents.

What efforts can be done by the community to prevent the rampant practice of child marriage? 

It means in the community there is a component of parents, teachers, community leaders, and children themselves. In Indonesia, it is like a utopia, isn’t it? Because we need to make sure that families do not treat children as objects that are controlled by parents. But children are subjects where they themselves are encouraged to think and think together about the future.

I think it is a big homework. Because it may be happening right now in certain families with enough education. I am not thinking from the perspective of economy, because there are also rich families whose children always become the objects, never subjects. This means that the challenge is how the parents of average family (in Indonesia the average education level is only Grade 7 or Grade 1 of Middle School, according to the Human Development Index (HDI). That is our reality, though many of us obtain undergraduate degree, even master’s degree and Ph.D., the reality is the average education level in Indonesia is only up to grade 7), whose average education level is only grade 7 can also obtain critical education so that later on could together make their children become subjects or ‘diwongke’ (respected). So then if the parents have economic difficulties, and their children cannot go school, because they are subjects then the children can be involved in discussing the way out. The government has provided a compulsory 9 years of basic education. But that alone is not enough. The parents need to think about how if they want to go to school. So again, marriage is no longer a shortcut or a way out.  

Another component, actually teachers can be partners. I remember once talking to teachers in Lombok, in a rural area of Central Lombok. When the daughters reach an age of akil baligh (puberty), the teachers are worried. They are afraid because so many of their students are gone, they are married off by their parents. Even though many of the students are smart girls. Teachers are eager to help by way of dialogue with their parents. But culturally it is not easy. Because later teachers may be considered interfering. So we need to think about a kind of dialogue (perhaps out of school), involving teachers and community leaders. Probably not by using the term “’prevention of child marriage”, but by encouraging children to get a higher education. If we use the term “prevention of child marriage”, it is difficult to accept, maybe we need to use another heading related to education.

In relation to community leaders, this unit may need to be involved. If it is in urban areas it may be RT -neighborhood unit- or RW -community unit- (I imagine this organization). If we rely on NGOs, the resources may not be enough. But we need to organize the community. My mother lives in Kemayoran, she is a retired teacher who is very active in organizing community since before retirement. Well, such people (such community leader) can be used, so the organization can be at the level of RT or RW level. Because at the RT and RW levels there are many activities. Even in the group of fathers, there is an arisan (rotating savings club) for the gentlemen. 

In the countryside, there are various units, for example, there is Banjar (the smallest form of local government) in Bali and Lombok, so there are such units that can be used to approach the parents. There is also another way like the one done by NGOs in India or Bangladesh. They approach the tenants of wedding equipment or wedding tents. So people who own a small business of wedding tents rental, refuse to rent their tents to families who want to marry off their children when their children are still very young. This practice is not only in big cities but also in small towns. But if it is in Indonesia, the challenge is culture and economic challenge, whether they dare to lose the opportunity to earn money by refusing. 

What about the responsibility of the country or government in order to prevent the practice of child marriage?

If the child marriage happens because of unwanted pregnancy, then the responsibility of the country is to organize sexuality education for students of kindergarten to at least high school, so they know. Whereas, from the economic perspective, the country should be present, particularly the compulsory 9 years of basic education policy should be supported with other policies. The level can be national or can be handed over to local governments. An example was done by Ahok (former Governor of DKI) who issued a card that can be used to buy school equipment. Although apparently, the school is free from tuition fee, the reality is that the school is still expensive. Students must buy uniforms, shoes, books, etc.  

The country should be present to help prevent the low-income group from poverty after they send their children to school because it is the responsibility of the country. And the country (although this has been rejected by the Constitutional Court (MK), they submit it to the DPR- the House of Representatives) must be serious in an attempt to review the Marriage Law No. 1 of 1974. I think raising the minimum age of marriage is something that cannot be delayed anymore. We are left behind compared to our neighboring countries, countries where the majority of their citizens are Muslims. In addition, the country must be the first to act to overcome the forgery of documents, because the forgery of a document is not just the fault of the parents. Now it has become something of a chain. I think it should really be dealt with firmly. 

The problem is until now there is no awareness to see this issue as truly emergency. Not only the emergency in term of the numbers, but it will affect the next generation, the quality of human resources, reproductive health, it has not been considered as something serious. How to raise political awareness that this is something crucial. Otherwise, we will be left behind.

What is the relevance of this theme to the research you have ever done?

I do a lot of research on rural women and indigenous women. The relationship is how the process of gender inequality, among others, is due to the process of impoverishment and also the inequality of land and natural resource proprietorship. As I observe the child marriage phenomenon in Lombok, apart from tradition, religious interpretation, etc., it is also closely related to poverty. And the impoverishment cannot be separated from the order of power over land and natural resources. There are so many people in Lombok who become farm laborers. As economic life becomes more difficult, more debt, the choice would be to become a migrant worker, to marry off their daughters quickly, or one of the family members becomes a victim of human trafficking. That is my research domain, which sees gender inequality from the inequality of land proprietorship. {}

 

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