An audit meeting with local officials on the Indonesian island of Sumba turned into a dark nightmare for Citra, a school administrator, when she was bundled into a car and almost forced into a marriage with a man she did not love.
Now 31, she still vividly recalls the ordeal, which was not a one-off incident but part of a tradition of “bride kidnapping” on the remote island located east of the holiday paradise of Bali.
Officials say they are trying to stamp out the practice – which has questionable historical origins – where potential brides are taken by force by family members or friends of men who want to marry them.
But victims and rights groups protest that action to protect women has been tardy amid fears about respecting cultural sensitivities.
Citra, which is a pseudonym to protect her identity, was kidnapped in 2017 at the behest of distant relatives. She recalls screaming and cursing at the men who physically carried her into their car, and desperately messaging her parents and boyfriend for help.
When she arrived at the home of her would-be husband, his relatives immediately began to perform rituals to prepare her for marriage, and attempted to touch her forehead with water, which traditionally means she would no longer be allowed to leave their house.
She fiercely resisted their advances, pulling out her hair and throwing it on the ground in front of them, crying and begging to go home. She refused food and water, and deliberately hit her head against a pole hoping to make them feel pity and listen to her wishes.
But the family refused to let her go. In desperation, contemplating running away or suicide, she wrote a letter to the police – hand delivered by her younger sister – and the authorities asked the village chief to mediate between the two families.
She was finally released at 2am on the sixth day of her imprisonment, but was left deeply shaken by her experience and faced misogynistic societal stigmas for refusing to marry her relative.
Her story went viral on social media. “I did not dare to come out of the house for about two weeks because of the trauma,” Citra told The Telegraph. “I immediately lost weight … and I did not pick up my phone for more than a week,” she said.
“I was like an animal, like a dog, caught by strangers … I did not know the perpetrators,” she said about the men who carried out the kidnapping.
Now married, with a one-year-old daughter, she hopes that by publicising her story she can help end the practice of bride trafficking by ushering in new laws to protect women.
Both the kidnappers and families who forced women into marriage should be punished as a deterrent and to open the eyes of the public, she argued. Churches should refuse to bless forced weddings.
“My dignity was trampled on,” she said. “If I, who received higher education can still be treated like that, what about those who did not go to school at all?” added the college graduate.
After news of the controversial practice sparked a national outcry, regional leaders in Sumba signed a pledge in July to put an end to it. The promise was made in the presence of Bintang Puspayoga, the women’s empowerment minister, who flew in from the national capital, Jakarta.
The move was welcomed by rights activists like local group Peruati, who assist kidnapped women, but chairperson Darwita H. Purba said the problem was linked to “culture-based violence” that assumed “men are the centre of everything and rule over women,” making it “very difficult” to overcome.
While the government had taken action over reported cases, many victims were too afraid of the societal blowback to make a complaint, she said. Peruati offers support to victims and their families, but is also calling for the government to provide more legal protection with robust new laws to eliminate sexual violence.
Diana Timoria, who volunteers for a group called Solidarity for Women and Children, said it had recorded ten cases of bride kidnapping between 2015 and 2020, but that figure was underestimated the true problem.
“Most people don’t report the cases,” she said, adding that men were also victims of coerced marriages. “If you fight for women’s rights, against this practice, you are accused of not respecting your culture,” she said.
“People use the term ‘culture’ to excuse what they do to women in Sumba,” Ms Timoria added. “But things are slowly changing. People are becoming more aware.”
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