Laughing together under the shade of a frangipani tree, Suci, Ria and Holida look like any other young girls their age. But while their friends spend their time playing and listening to music, these girls have more pressing things on their minds.
They’ve been leading a campaign against child marriage in their village in West Lombok, Indonesia, and, with the help of their friends and a large megaphone, they’re determined to make sure their voices are heard.
“At first we went door-to-door asking people to sign a petition against child marriage,” says 18-year-old Suci. “But we wanted to do something bigger, so we decided to take our campaign onto the streets. We made a banner and marched through the village, telling people why child marriage needs to stop.”
Child marriage is a big problem in their village, says Holida, 18, who joined the group after her older brother married a 15 year old girl. “You see children carrying children of their own. They aren’t ready to make decisions about marriage but they end up getting married and then getting pregnant. I’m very sad when I see that.”
An estimated one in every seven girls in Indonesia is married before the age of 18, and the country is among the ten countries with the highest absolute numbers of child brides.
The key driver of child marriage in Indonesia is gender inequality, as well as poverty, and a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health education and services for young people. Although the level of education for girls and boys continues to increase, child marriage is still common in many rural areas.
That’s something Ria and her friends want to change. Modest and softly-spoken, it’s hard to imagine 16-year-old Ria protesting in the streets, but she says ending child marriage is everyone’s responsibility.
“Child marriage has an impact on the future of Indonesia. If young people don’t do well, our country won’t do well.” – Ria, 16
The girls started campaigning after they attended a community discussion about child marriage led by a child protection group in their village. The group was established as part of the Yes I Do project, which aims to prevent child marriage and harmful practices affecting girls’ sexual and reproductive health in Indonesia. The project is delivered by an alliance of Girls Not Brides members: Rutgers WPF Indonesia, Plan International Indonesia and Aliansi Remaja Independen (ARI), in partnership with community based organisations in Lombok.
The child protection group aims to educate people about gender equality and child marriage through community discussions. “We want girls to do what they want to do and say what they want to say. We want them to be able to decide their own futures,” says Jack, who was nominated by his community to lead the group.
The girls say the community discussions taught them how child marriage was affecting their community. “We talked about gender equality and we learned that girls have the same rights as boys. As a group, we wanted to help girls in our village achieve their dreams. We wanted to put an end to the myth that if you don’t get married early you won’t get married at all,” said Suci.
The problem was, no one in the village wanted to talk about child marriage. “People believed that if it is your destiny to be together you should get married, whatever your age,” says Holida.
And that wasn’t the girls’ only problem. “In community meetings or discussions it was only the adults who got to speak” said Suci. “Young people were being left out.”
So the girls persuaded other girls to join them, and on the day a large crowd of girls gathered, all wearing red head scarves – “a symbol of strength,” Suci says.
“After the march people recognised us as the girls who were talking about child marriage. It was very exciting and we were proud to finally be recognised as important actors in our community,” says Ria.
The girls know they still have a long way to go before child marriage is a thing of the past in West Lombok. “Even after our petition, my own cousin got married when she was 17,” says Suci. “But because of our campaign, her case became a big deal in the village. People used to just let it happen and they didn’t talk about it, but now when children get married people take it seriously.”
The girls are now planning to make a film about child marriage to so that they can get their message out to other villages. “Our campaign has changed how people think about child marriage in West Lombok, but that isn’t enough for us,” says Suci. “We want everyone to know why child marriage is wrong, so that girls everywhere can achieve their dreams.”
In the time it has taken to read this article 12 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds