A Brighter Future For Girl Children
A group of women in South Sulawesi joined the movement to end child marriage. They envision a brighter future for the region’s young girls.
Darma, now 32 years old, still has not forgotten the pain of losing her still-born baby at the age of 15. She struggled to deliver her post-term pregnancy, at the time already at 11 months. "My pregnancy went over nine months, for reasons that I wasn’t aware of," she said.
Because she lived in the remote village of Matirro Uleng, Kulambing Island, South Sulawesi, Darma had trouble finding proper care for the delivery. A village midwife sent her to a hospital in Pangkajene, the capital of the Pangkajene and Islands Regency known simply as Pangkep. But she eventually lost the baby.
Her ordeal did not stop there, as she had to undergo a curettage. "It was extremely painful. I almost couldn’t bear it," she said, describing the pain she had to endure. As a child, she did not expect such pain. Darma was not yet 15 when she married Burhan, 10 years older.
She could not bring herself to refuse her parents decision to accept Burhan’s marriage proposal. Her sister had already been married off, also at child-age. "All I knew was that my father took control of everything, while my mother was a ‘yes-sir’ person," she said. "My father was following the tradition in our village, where child marriage is common practice."
Marrying at a very young age meant dropping out of middle school. Her husband, a traditional fisherman, could not truly provide for the family, and Darma could only resign herself to this fact.
Her life changed in 2013, when she joined Sekolah Perempuan (the Women’s School), a program organized by the Community Research and Empowerment Foundation (YKPM), a non-profit based in South Sulawesi. Darma felt a rebirth at this stage in her life. She now sees it as a milestone for a new life. "I decided to move forward, pursue my own dreams and leave my gloomy past behind," she said.
There were, however, several unfortunate occurrences around the time she joined the school. "Villagers were suspicious that [the school’s organizers] could have been human trafficking agents. They spread the rumor that all of us in the movement would be sent to Australia to be sold. There were even intruders who shouted at us, saying we were involved in a terrorist group," said Darma. "It’s no wonder that our first trial was met with failure."
But Darma and her friends did not lose hope, and she managed to convince the community through her family. She approached her parents and husband, vouching for the movement she had joined. Thankfully, her family showed great support as they, too, could not forget Darma’s painful delivery process-a consequence of child-age marriage. Furthermore, Darma’s difficult married life also made her father see that he had made a mistake in marrying his daughter off at such a young age.
At the school, Darma met other women with similar experiences, among them Saidah, 26, from Sabangko Island, and Salmiah, 30, from Pangkajene. But unlike in Darma’s village, Saidah and Salmia’s hometowns have lower rates of child marriage. As a consequence, they were discriminated against and bullied by other teens for dropping out of school.
"I was always sad because I couldn’t be like my friends. Some of them became nurses, and others continued on to university, while I did nothing," said Salmia. "This is why I was really eager to join the Women’s School."
The school introduced them to numerous issues they were not familiar with. The facilitators’ primary focus was on gender equality and reproductive health.
Rosniati, a field officer at the Women’s School, described her team’s difficulties in expanding their mission in South Sulawesi. "We initiated the program in Pangkep in 2013, but it was officially launched in February 2014," she explained. "This is one of the six regions of concern throughout Indonesia where we’ve focused our mission."
Pangkep’s high poverty rate was why the organization chose the regency, with 10 islands categorized as poor regions. Rosniati and friends went to the local government to introduce their program. Once they had the local government’s approval, the foundation individually approached women who had married before reaching adulthood, inviting them to participate in the movement and join the school.
But their invitation was not immediately warmly received. It took time before Rosniati and her collagues were able to enlist the women due to "a combination of suspicion, fear and ignorance," she explained. "But we could understand their reaction."
Finally, several women joined. After that, Rosniati’s next big challenge was the weak role women had in the community. Because of it, the women in the vicinity were for the most part more passive and less educated. She instructed her team to be patient when communicating with their new recruits.
The Women’s School teaches its students life skills and encourages them to be confident in the public sphere. They are equipped with knowledge on cross-sectoral issues, especially in regard to women’s roles and rights. Additionally, the women are given financial assistance and encouraged to try their hand at entrepreneurship, thus giving them a chance to overcome poverty and improve the quality of their lives.
Currently, 17 women’s groups across the islands from four villages in Pangkep have joined the school. Over the past four years, 490 women have registered as campaigners. These women assemble routinely, twice a month. After two years, each group sends five to seven of their members for training to become the next facilitators. Since then, Rosniati and her team no longer have to make visits to all the women’s groups.
"Seeing their interest [in the school], we created a training of trainers (ToT) system, which is good for the program’s sutainability," said Rosniati. "That was when the groups’ representatives, like Darma, Saidah and Salmia, got to meet."
Years since the day they joined the school, Darma, Saidah and Salmia can enjoy the benefits. They are now involved in village meetings as well as community services. Village officials also welcome them to participate in village development planning meetings (Musrenbangdes). Darma says she now works at the Village Health Center (Puskesdes) as a support assistant.
Finally, the women also share their "story" to youngsters, relating to them the importance of education in preventing child marriage. With growing awareness, there have also been fewer incidents of domestic violence. "I hope with this achievement, the movement’s spirit will never cease," said Saidah.