The Indonesian parliament unanimously agreed to raise the legal minimum age at which girls can marry to 19 last week. The move comes after decades of campaigning and will help to advance gender equality and close legal loopholes that have enabled issue of child marriage to remain pervasive in the country.
“Finally, after 45 years (of the existing marriage law). This is a present for Indonesian children,” Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Yohana Yembise said in a statement.
Though the legal marriage age for both men and women is officially 21, numerous loopholes have allowed girls as young as 16 and men as young as 19 to marry with parental consent. The law also allowed girls of any age to be married off with permission from local authorities and religious courts.
Indonesia has the eighth highest number of child brides in the world, with 14% of girls married before 18 and more than 3 million before age 15, according to UNICEF. The minister pointed out that child marriage in the country has been linked to higher rates of maternal and infant deaths, as well as child labor.
"It is like living in hell when a child gets married and made to carry another child,” lawmaker Eva Kusuma Sundari said earlier this year as a coalition of the country’s legislators pushed for action.
The new law comes after the country’s highest court declared last year that the current legislation around the minimum age of marriage discriminates against girls. The ruling required the government to raise the legal minimum age in the next three years, but did not specify by how much.
"The Indonesian parliament's decision is a positive step towards recognizing that girls are entitled to the same opportunities in life as boys," Rachel Yates, executive director for nonprofit Girls Not Brides, told CNN in a statement.
While the new law is a huge win for the rights of girls in the region, advocates says that there is still more work to be done.
"Ending child marriage will not be achieved by laws alone. While laws and policies are essential in preventing child marriage, we also need to change the attitudes that make child marriage acceptable in the first place," Yates said.
Read More: Child Marriage: Everything You Need to Know
Child marriage has long been a social norm in the country, and the cultural beliefs that promote the practice are still widely accepted.
“The society still encourages girls to get married in their teenage years, otherwise they will be considered spinsters,” Masruchah of the National Commission on Violence Against Women told Reuters.
Still, the parliament’s united decision has spurred greater hopes of a brighter and more equal future for girls in Indonesia.