With proper sex education almost nonexistent, Indonesia's battle to reduce its high number of underage marriages resulting from unwanted teen pregnancies could be in vain, jeopardising a chance to seize the potential of its demographic dividend.
The teen pregnancy problem has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and school closures, which resulted in millions of young people spending more time at home, with many unable to fully participate in remote learning due to a lack of infrastructure.
A study conducted by Padjajaran University in Bandung in West Java province showed there has been a sharp increase in underage marriages this year, to about 5,000 as of September.
"About 90% of requests for marriage dispensation were granted," said Sonny Dewi Judiasih, a lecturer at the university's law school.
"West Java is among the provinces with the highest number of underage marriages in the country," she told Asia Focus last week, adding that about 80% of the child brides her team counted had married because of an unwanted pregnancy.
Indonesia's Marriage Law in 2019 was amended last year to raise the minimum age for marriage with parental consent for both sexes to 19 years old. Parents are still required to submit a request for an underage marriage dispensation to a religious court judge. Previously, women could marry as young as 16 with parental consent. The minimum legal age to marry without parental consent is 21 for men and women.
Mardi Candra, a judicial judge at the Supreme Court, said during a recent webinar that there were cases in which judges were pressed to grant an application because the girl was already pregnant out of wedlock.
"Such situations gave religious court judges no choice but to approve underage marriage dispensation requests," he said.
West Nusa Tenggara is another province where underage marriage has been on the rise during the pandemic. Data from provincial authorities showed that from January to early September this year, there were 522 applications for underage marriage dispensation, and at least 408 reported teen pregnancies.
The government has set a target to reduce the ratio of child brides to 8.7% of all marriages by 2023 from about 11.2% now. Children make up about 30% or 80 million out of Indonesia's 267 million population.
The ability to reduce the number of child brides in a province shows a direct correlation with the success of a province's human development index, according to Lenny Rosalin, a deputy at the Ministry of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection.
Girls who marry before turning 18 are four times more likely to drop out of school than their unmarried peers, she said during a recent webinar.
"Provinces where the number of underage marriages remains high also have a high number of school dropouts, stunting, and low human development index," Ms Rosalin said, adding that it provinces with a low underage marriage rate fared better on the human development index.
The Indonesian Women's Coalition, a non-governmental organisation that works to prevent child marriage in the country, said the social and economic impact of the pandemic, with families experiencing economic hardship and children dropping out of school due to the inability to participate in remote learning, are among the triggers behind the rise of this longstanding problem in Indonesia.
"It comes at a time when we were supposed to be promoting the new Supreme Court regulation issued late last year, which contains guidelines for religious court judges to carefully deliberate applications for underage marriage dispensation," Lia Anggiasih, an activist with the coalition, told Asia Focus.
"On paper, the regulations and the guidelines are actually good but it remains to be seen if the Supreme Court assigns religious court judges who have a good understanding of the new regulation in districts across the country," she said.
"This year was supposed to be the year when we rolled out programmes to promote it but the pandemic has got in our way."
The Supreme Court regulation, which was issued after the amendment of the marriage law last year, aims to ensure that any dispensation for underage marriage granted by a judge would be more accountable, given that dispensation is still allowed in accordance with the amended marriage law, said Andi Samsan Nganro, a spokesman for the Supreme Court.
Data from the Supreme Court showed that the number of applications for child marriage dispensation jumped in 2019 to 24,864, from 13,815 in 2018 and 13,095 in 2017.
"But it does not mean that all requests for underage marriage dispensation are granted. A judge would carefully weigh the aspects pertaining to the child's welfare, growth and protection that are laid out in the regulations and may not approve the request," Mr Nganro told Asia Focus.
Supreme Court judicial judge Candra said that judges have been trained to change their views in handling requests for child marriage dispensation.
But Ms Anggiasih from the coalition said that as long as there is a loophole for requesting marriage dispensation, it would difficult to lower the number of child marriages.
"We should focus more on educating parents about the negative impact of marrying their underage children, such as dropping out of school, stunting, and all the suffering that comes with child marriage," she said.