By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Sanita Rini's village on the Indonesian island of Java, child brides were so common that girls who were not married by the time they turned 16 were labelled "old virgins".
Like other parents in the village, Rini's tried to marry her off - to a motorbike driver seven years her senior - as soon as she celebrated her 13th birthday.
"I was shocked. I cried, I was angry," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I knew from my friends who married young, they can't continue school, their life is over," said Rini, now 22.
Rini's story is not uncommon in Indonesia, which is among the top 10 countries in the world with the highest number of child brides, according to campaign group Girls Not Brides.
But she stopped her child marriage and now, along with a group of teenage girls, Rini is seeking to empower others to fight back through a new network, the Youth Coalition for Girls.
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.
Globally, 15 million girls become child brides each year, exposing them to greater risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.
Campaigners say poverty and tradition continue to drive underage marriage in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago in Southeast Asia with a population of 250 million people.
STRIKING A 'DEAL'
The U.N. defines child marriage as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18. However in Indonesia, the minimum age a girl can wed is 16, and 19 for boys.
Rini said her father, a construction labour, and mother, who runs a grocery store from home, tried for two years to marry her to the man from her village to help the family's finances.
The youngest of five siblings, Rini resisted and her parents eventually dropped the idea after she struck a "deal" with them.
"I asked my parents how much they have spent on me, for my education. I said I would repay them this money if they let me continue my studies. If they forced me to get married, they would not get a single cent," she said.
The coalition hopes stories like Rini's can inspire other girls to stand up for their rights on issues ranging from child marriage to sexual violence.
Launched in March, the group now has 180 members aged between 15 and 24 in 11 provinces across the archipelago who want to tackle gender equality through talks and book projects.
The coalition has a few survivors of child marriage and Rini, the group's deputy head, said sharing their experiences help girls who are trapped to envision a different future. "I want to tell the girls, they are not alone. They have the power to say no," she said.
The coalition also reaches out to parents to tell them the importance of education and encourage them to let their children continue their studies until at they are at least 18.
A university graduate, Rini has spoken about her experience in Japan and the Netherlands and her parents are proud of her.
The new coalition comes as women's rights campaigners in Indonesia broaden their movement by engaging men and religious leaders.
In April, female Muslim clerics issued an unprecedented fatwa - a religious edict which is not legally binding but influential among Muslims - to declare underage marriage harmful and said its prevention was mandatory.
Rini admits the network is only in its infancy, but she hopes by taking this step, politicians will start engaging youths themselves when drafting policies and enacting laws.
"My dream is to see boys and girls in Indonesia enjoy their rights equally," she said.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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