On Jakarta’s vanishing shoreline, climate change seen abetting child marriages

  • Marriage before the age of 18 is classified as a form of gender-based violence by the United Nations, but is commonly practiced in low-income communities to mitigate household economic pressures.
  • On Jakarta’s northern coastline, child marriage is common in fishing communities responding to inflationary pressures and declining stocks of fish in near-shore waters.
  • Janah, now 23, fears she lacks the agency to break a cycle that saw her married at the age of 16.

JAKARTA — Every morning, sisters Janah and Jaroh rise early on the diminishing coastline of Indonesia’s capital city and pray for calm weather and good fortune. At around 9 a.m., the pair wait on the shoreline with other women and girls as the fishing boats return to Jakarta’s northern Kalibaru neighborhood.

Kalibaru’s waterfront lies just 300 meters, about 1,000 feet, from New Priok Container Terminal One, a colossal port facility that started operating in 2016. As the fishing boats sail past the towering stack of cargo containers on their starboard side, the women prepare themselves to unload and process the day’s catch, wearying tasks that will occupy them for the remainder of the day.

If they work from morning to evening, Janah, 23, and Jaroh, 20, will usually earn from around 15,000-36,000 rupiah (about $1-$2) per day.

“If you are injured, you just keep going with the work,” Janah said. “What else can we do?”

Like millions of Indonesian women, and many in Kalibaru, both Janah and Jaroh were married in adolescence, not long after they finished junior high school, at the age of 16. Until 2019, that was the minimum age at which girls could marry in Indonesia. Kalibaru resident Siti, a 31-year-old mother, said she was married when she was even younger, at just 15 years old. Today, the minimum legal age for marriage is 19.

“We had no choice but to marry young and help the family,” Siti said. “Mothers often find it difficult to earn a living when the father dies.”

The women of Kalibaru, Cilincing, North Jakarta peel shellfish to meet their daily needs.
The women of Kalibaru, North Jakarta, peel shellfish to meet their daily needs. Image by Maulika Inka / Mongabay Indonesia.

Indonesia’s government has recorded a decline in the number of girls marrying in adolescence, but a report published in 2020 by UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency, showed that one in nine women aged 20-24 across this archipelago of 270 million people had wed before the age of 18. Many worry that incidences of child marriage may have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A child who is forced to be married or due to certain condition has to be married under age 18 will face higher vulnerability in terms of access to education, health quality, vulnerability to violence, and poverty,” the UNICEF report noted.

Indonesia’s government wants to cut incidences of child marriage to 8.7% by 2024, according to its five-year national development plan, or RPJMN.

Links between environmental stress and gender-based violence are well documented around the world. For example, researchers found that girls in Ethiopia and Sudan were more likely to be sold for livestock during periods of heat wave or drought.

However, the experience of women like Janah and Jaroh — and some recent academic studies — suggest that climate change may be an emerging factor underpinning early marriage in coastal communities vulnerable to climate change.

When Janah and Jaroh were young children, their mother would take them to the coast to keep an eye on them as she worked, rather than leave the girls unaccompanied at home. That cycle has yet to be broken: every morning, Janah and Jaroh take their own children down to the water.

A child is playing among waste and rubbish in the Muara Angke area, North Jakarta in April 2018.
A child plays among waste and rubbish in the Muara Angke area, North Jakarta, in April 2018. Image by Anton Wisuda/Mongabay Indonesia.

Perfect storm

Jakarta is sinking at a rate of up to 15 centimeters (6 inches) every year, faster than any other global megacity. The impending inundation of the city’s northern neighborhoods was one factor that prompted Indonesian President Joko Widodo to announce the construction of a new capital city on the island of Borneo.

Jakarta’s sinking feeling is a function of decades of unrestricted extraction of groundwater, rather than gradual inundation from rising sea levels. However, researchers expect factors more closely linked to climate change to increasingly threaten the livelihoods of coastal fishing communities.

Rising acidification and sea temperatures will strain fish stocks far beyond the high levels of stress in tropical fishing zones already documented today by researchers. As reported by Mongabay, fishers residing on the north coast of Java Island are sailing farther and farther from the world’s most populous island to locate a viable catch owing to overfishing.

“There are some serious concerns related to the fish resources and habitat degradations in the GJBE [Greater Jakarta Bay Ecosystem],” according to a 2018 study published by Hari Eko Irianto and colleagues in the Indonesian Fisheries Research Journal.

A complex array of factors linked to warming, from the impact on the reproduction cycle of fish to a rise in harmful algae blooms, will accelerate the existing pressures caused by overfishing.

For women like Janah and Jaroh, dwindling fish stocks due to overfishing and climate change threaten both their income and the availability of a key source of protein for their children, raising questions about the prospects of young girls growing up now in coastal communities like Kalibaru.

A number of workers dry fish and shrimp in Kalibaru Village, Cilincing District, North Jakarta.
Workers dry fish and shrimp in Kalibaru Village, Cilincing District, North Jakarta. Image by Falahi Mubarok/Mongabay Indonesia.

New research from Ohio State University, published in August in the journal International Social Work, found that extreme weather events correlated with increases in child marriage.

“What these disasters do is exacerbate existing problems of gender inequality and poverty that lead families to child marriage as a coping mechanism,” said lead author Fiona Doherty.

The OSU research involved a review of 20 published studies from low- to middle-income countries. In Bangladesh, researchers documented a 50% increase in the likelihood of marriage among girls aged 11-14 during years in which a heat wave lasted for 30 or more days.

“The complexities surrounding child marriage and extreme weather will worsen amid climate change,” said study co-author Smitha Rao, assistant professor of social work at Ohio State.

A previous study published in 2020 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature drew similar conclusions: child marriage was frequently a response to household economic pressure, which climate change will exacerbate.

“Environmental degradation now affects our lives in ways that are becoming impossible to ignore, from food to jobs to security,” Grethel Aguilar, the acting IUCN director-general, said in a statement. “This study shows us that the damage humanity is inflicting on nature can also fuel violence against women around the world — a link that has so far been largely overlooked.”

Susan Herawati, secretary-general of the People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), an Indonesian NGO, confirmed the prevalence of early marriage in Java’s coastal communities, emphasizing the accelerating influence of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. In coastal regions, limited employment opportunities and escalating climate uncertainty leave women with limited choices.

“When the income of fishing families decreases due to climate change, they will tend to look for a shortcut by marrying off their daughters at an early age,” Susan said.

Rumah Kita Bersama, a Jakarta-based foundation that works extensively to push back against child marriage, said rates of child marriage may not be captured in official data.

“The environmental crisis that is occurring, difficult water quality, increasingly small catches, increasingly poor quality of fish and the absence of reproductive health education and nonexistent children’s play spaces are complex problems in Kalibaru,” said Achmat Hilmi, the study director of Rumah Kita Bersama.

The future of Janah, Jaroh, Siti — and their daughters — in Kalibaru is far from certain. One study published in 2019 in the International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment found that Kalibaru would have the highest risk of flooding in Jakarta by 2040. By then, Janah and Jaroh’s children will be young adults, possibly with children of their own.

“I don’t have savings, now I have a family,” said Janah, when asked about her hopes. Jaroh and Siti both showed their agreement.

“What I really want is to continue school, then work at a company, or to get out of here,” said Janah. “But I don’t know where to start.”

Banner image: A child in Jakarta working in the fishing sector. Image by ILO/A.Mirza via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Sept. 12, 2023.

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Irianto, H. E., Hartati, S. T., & Sadiyah, L. (2018). Fisheries and environmental impacts in the great Jakarta Bay ecosystem. Indonesian Fisheries Research Journal, 23(2), 69. doi:10.15578/ifrj.23.2.2017.69-78

Doherty, F. C., Rao, S., & Radney, A. R. (2023). Association between child, early, and forced marriage and extreme weather events: A mixed-methods systematic review. International Social Work. doi:10.1177/00208728231186006

Rahayu, H. P., Haigh, R., Amaratunga, D., Kombaitan, B., Khoirunnisa, D., & Pradana, V. (2019). A micro scale study of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in coastal urban strategic planning for the Jakarta. International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, 11(1), 119-133. doi:10.1108/ijdrbe-10-2019-0073

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