Indonesia moves toward child marriage ban after viral photo of teenage couple

Chloe Chaplain
Outrage: The government has vowed to crack down on underage brides: EPA

A viral picture of a teenage couple trying to get married has sparked outrage in Indonesia and prompted the government to move towards a ban on child brides.

A photo of a 15-year-old boy and a girl, 14, trying to register their marriage on the island of Sulawesi has been shared widely online since last week, sparking renewed pressure on the government to end such underage unions.

The couple had sought permission from a religious court for their marriage – which was given – and the girl told reporters their union was her “destiny” after they had been dating for five months.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, is among 10 countries with the highest number of girls marrying before they turn 18, according to campaign group Girls Not Brides.

Under Indonesian laws, girls can marry at the age of 16, and 19 for boys if parents give their consent but religious courts can grant permission for people to marry younger.

Young: The girl, who is 14, said marrying her 15-year-old boyfriend was her 'destiny'

After the story of the young couple circulated, President Joko Widodo has agreed to sign a decree that would ban child marriage, a spokeswoman at the Women Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

No other details were available immediately, but the spokeswoman said public dialogues on the matter would be held.

The ministry has been pressing the government to raise the minimum age for marriage to 20 for girls, and 22 for boys.

Women's rights campaigners said a ban on child marriage is long overdue.

"Child marriage is a form of sexual violence," said Ninik Rahayu, one of the female Islamic clerics who jointly issued an unprecedented fatwa against child marriage last year.

A fatwa, or religious edict, is influential among Muslims although it is not legally binding.

"Child marriage has reached an emergency level in Indonesia. If we don't take action quick enough, it will destroy the future of our children," Ms Rahayu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Andreas Harsono from campaign group Human Rights Watch said the Indonesian government's pledge is "bold" but action must be taken without delay.

One in four girls marry before they turn 18 in Indonesia, according to the United Nations' children agency, UNICEF. On average over 3,500 Indonesian girls are married off every day.