13 Nov 2010

Indonesian child protection system ill-equipped to deal with religion related child abuse

The Jakarta Post - December 5, 2009

Underage marriage vs protecting kids' rights

Opinion by Muhrisun Afandi , Victoria, Australia

The acquittal of Syech Puji, the deviant cleric indicted for marrying an underage student, in a preliminary verdict at Ungaran District Court a couple of weeks ago, was a serious wake-up call for the backwardness of the child protection system in Indonesia. It reinforced the assumption that underage marriage is legal in this country and is simply treated as something that is not out of ordinary in the society.

From some arguments that came out in the trial process we can see there are serious loopholes in Indonesia's child protection law, which allow children's rights to be violated easily.

The trial process showed us how the child protection system in Indonesia country is seriously ill-equipped to deal with child abuse cases that are carried out under the perceived authority of religious values and dogma, as shown in the case of Syech Puji.

It is important to note that religion remains widely accepted as a source of authoritative guidance on child protection among Indonesian society.

However, the fact is that religious dogma can act as a boomerang - putting Indonesian children in serious danger of abuse and exploitation as it is easily misinterpreted.

In this case the discourse on child abuse may need to focus, not only on protecting children from violence, exploitation and neglect, but also from having their vulnerability exploited by aspects of religious dogma and values.

The Syech Puji case is just the tip of an iceberg of the hidden problems of child abuse in Indonesia that are being justified according to self-serving religious norms and traditions. Some parents still use religious dogma to encourage or force their children, especially daughters, into early or arranged marriages.

Children's birth dates on ID cards or birth certificates can be easily falsified to fulfill minimum age requirements for marriage, particularly for girls.

Complexities such as these demonstrate the fact that cultural and religious issues cannot be excluded from any discussion of child abuse and child protection policy in Indonesia.

From some arguments in response to the Syech Puji case, on one hand, we can see clearly how some classical Islamic texts covering children's issues are still widely accepted as authoritative sources and guides for child welfare among Muslim communities, even though the concepts they propagate may no longer be relevant to contemporary society.

This case, on the other hand, highlights the importance of exploring how Muslim communities in Indonesia apply Islamic law for child protection in a way that may differ to other Muslim countries.

Such exploration seems to be more urgent given the recent increase in number of new Islamic groups in Indonesia. Particularly since many of these new groups are vigorously promoting the adoption of the orthodox Islamic family model common in the Middle East, which is clearly alien to Indonesian culture and tradition.

Limited attention was paid to child welfare in contemporary Indonesian Muslim society in the discourse on developing family law for Indonesia's Muslims.

However, attempts to challenge or change the content of the family law have been problematic and, accordingly, very little attention has been focused on child protection issues.

Family law is considered the core of sharia (Islamic law) by many Indonesian Muslims, so any proposed changes to this law generally trigger controversy, since they are often regarded as corrupting the core of the religion. This may be the reason why there has been little discourse on Islam and child welfare in Indonesia.

International experts have discussed the compatibility of international child protection legislation with Islamic norms. Some are optimistic that Islamic teachings and concepts are parallel with international discourse on children's rights.

The fact is that in Indonesia, however, different concepts and contradictions arise when adapting international legislation on the protection of children for local conditions.

For example, the basic definition of children's rights in Indonesian child protection law, which defines a child on the basis of age (under 18), is different from that understood by Indonesian Muslims.

Islamic legal traditions determine children's rights based on such concepts as baligh and mumayiz, age of consent, religious criteria for determining children's competency, which is not solely determined on the basis of age. A child may be able to be categorized as a mature and capable individual earlier or later than others in the same age group.

The lack of reaction from society to the acquittal of Syech Puji shows that public awareness of child abuse was limited. It is striking that there could be a massive public protest as shown by a group of social networking supporting antigraft officials on Facebook, which has been dominating the media for the last couple of weeks, but very few seem to be speaking up for the victims of child abuse in this country.

The writer, a lecturer at UIN Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta, is PhD candidate at Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia (CAPRA), School of Primary Health Care, Monash University.

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