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‘I could only cry and scream’: Instances of bride kidnapping in rural Indonesia prompt calls to abolish practice

‘I could only cry and scream’: Instances of bride kidnapping in rural Indonesia prompt calls to abolish practice

Bride kidnapping has long been a debatable issue on Indonesia's Sumba island (Illustration: Rafa Estrada).

JAKARTA: Ms Melati was feeding her 11-month-old son outside of her brother’s house on Sumba island last month, when a group of men suddenly approached her. 

They dragged her away from her child. 

Ms Melati, not her real name, screamed, thrashed and tried to free herself from the more than a dozen men who she did not know.

“I felt I was almost dying. I could only cry and scream,” the 23-year-old told CNA.

“There was nothing I could do. There were many of them,” she recounted.

Her brother and father, who were in her brother’s house at the time of the incident, saw Ms Melati being carried away.

They tried to free her, but were outnumbered by the perpetrators.

Ms Melati was taken to a pickup truck. As the vehicle drove away, a few men held her feet and hands tightly to prevent her from jumping off the vehicle.

She tried to bite the men who held her, but to no success as they maintained a tight grip.

The men did not tell her what was happening, but as a Sumbanese, Ms Melati guessed that she was a victim of a local practice known as ‘capture and wed’, a form of bride kidnapping.

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They eventually arrived at a house where many people had already gathered.

Ms Melati was then carried into an empty room, where she was free to move as it was unlocked.

She thought about running away. But as there were too many people in the house, she decided to stay put and hope that her family would rescue her.

At night, she was introduced by the owners of the house to a man they said was her groom-to-be.

“The man looked at me,” Ms Melati recounted.

“He then told his parents: ‘Yes, I like her. I would like to marry her.’

“But I then screamed: ‘I don’t like you! I have a baby! I have a partner!’”

Activists say bride kidnapping is an act of sexual violence.​​​​​​​ (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

Ms Melati spent the night alone in the room unable to sleep, afraid of what the perpetrators would do next to her.

Fortunately, at midday the following day, her relatives came with the police and human rights activists to free her. The perpetrators apologised and she was taken home.

Instances of bride kidnapping are not unknown in Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara province. 

The phenomenon has gained attention in Indonesia recently, after a video circulated online last month. 

In the now viral video, a woman, not Ms Melati, was seen being carried by five shirtless men who held her tightly while she cried.

While Ms Melati and activists demand that the practice be abolished as it is a violation of women’s rights, others note that the issue is not so straightforward. 

Gender roles have been entrenched, while enforcement can be problematic. 


Head of East Sumba parliament Ali Oemar Fadaq said that the ‘capture and wed’ practice has long been a debatable issue on the island.

“It does not happen often (in East Sumba). It is also debatable if someone claims it is a tradition. But it does occur,” Mr Fadaq told CNA.

He said that several incidents had ended with the women marrying the men, but he is not aware if such practices have ever ended in a divorce.

Mr Fadaq said he knows such couples who are happily married.

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Even though he is against it, Mr Fadaq said it is hard to prevent bride kidnapping because nobody knows when it happens.

“It can happen in villages, everywhere. I am not convinced that it can be entirely abolished because we cannot control it.

“It just happens suddenly at a place and then it becomes viral because nowadays people have handphones,” Mr Fadaq said.

To prevent it from happening, Mr Fadaq said the government must work hard to educate people that it is not allowed for women to be abducted. 

A Sumbanese woman weaves fabric at their house decorated with water buffalo horns in Waikabubak the capital of West Sumba island located in eastern Indonesia. (File photo: AFP/ROMEO GACAD)

The incident in the viral video happened in Central Sumba on Jun 16, just a week before Ms Melati was abducted, according to activists and local authorities.

A 21-year-old woman was taken from her uncle’s house by five men to a neighbour’s house.

The video shows the victim screaming while being carried by the men, but the abductors ignore her objections.

Activists familiar with the matter told CNA that the woman and her family were initially against the practice.

However, after talking with the family of the groom-to-be, the woman in the video who has been named as R by local media, is believed to have agreed to the union. 

A cousin of R, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CNA that she met R two days after the kidnapping. 

“R said that initially, on the first day, she wanted to run away. But after two days, she decided to accept N (the groom-to-be) as her husband.

“At first I didn’t believe it, but after I asked her several times and her answer was still the same: ‘I accept N’, then I believed her,” the cousin said.

The cousin also pointed out that if R had wanted to escape, it would have been possible since her parents’ house was nearby.

Head of West Sumba police, who also is responsible for Central Sumba, Grand Commissioner Adjutant Khairul Saleh told CNA that they have investigated the viral video and questioned eight witnesses.

“Both parties have accepted that the woman would marry the man whom the perpetrators appointed.

“They claimed they love each other,” said Grand Commissioner Adjutant Saleh.

Since nobody filed an official police report, he said the authorities cannot pursue the case further legally but will continue to monitor it.


Ms Aprissa Taranau, the chairwoman of the Sumba chapter of the Alliance of Women with Theological Education in Indonesia (Peruati) said she has looked into the ‘capture and wed’ practice and found seven cases in the last four years.

The cases involved women aged 16 to 30. Five ended with the women being freed, while two ended in marriages.

The 16-year-old was allegedly snatched when she was with her mother. 

She was also allegedly raped multiple times, according to Ms Taranau’s research. She said that other cases may have gone unnoticed.

A Sumbanese woman holding a baby carries a bucket containing water at a village in West Sumba in East Nusa Tenggara Province. (File photo: AFP/SONNY TUMBELAKA)

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Ms Herlina Ratu Kenya, the secretary of the Sumba chapter of Peruati has condemned the practice.

“It is a crime which uses tradition as an excuse,” she told CNA.

Peruati has started an online petition urging the governor of East Nusa Tenggara to issue a regulation prohibiting marriages by abductions. More than 20,0000 people have signed the petition.

Ms Siti Aminah Tardi, commissioner of Indonesia’s National Commission of Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), has also criticised the bride kidnapping practice.

She characterised the practice as an act of sexual violence, adding that female victims suffer from the deprivation of their rights.

“There must be a comprehensive step to eradicate practices of violence against women in the name of tradition or customs in society.

“Public education and law enforcement need to be done by the state and society in order to be able to provide essential security for women,” Ms Tardi added.

Horse riders take their position during a ritual war festival at Wanokaka village in West Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara. (File photo: AFP/SONNY TUMBELAKA)

Is bride kidnapping part of the local culture? 

Mdm Norlina Rambu Jola Kalunga, chancellor of Christian University Wira Wacana Sumba, said it is not so.

She said that in Sumba’s tradition, marriage is sacred because it unites two people and two families.

Over time, there have been different forms of marriages. Among them is a situation where cousins may marry each other, but it must be done properly, she said.

“The woman would wear a traditional sarong and those who would carry her would also wear traditional sarongs,” said Mdm Kalungan who studied sociology and anthropology.

“So in that practice, the woman is respected. But over time, there seems to be a shift where women are carried without their consent which in my opinion is a form of harassment,” Mdm Kalunga said.

A Sumbanese woman weaves clothes to sell to visitors at Tarung tourism village, in West Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara. (File photo: AFP/SONNY TUMBELAKA)

To end the practice, she said it is important to educate people that men and women have the same rights. And this education has to start at home.

“It is at home where it must be made a habit (that women and men are equal) and parents must teach (their children) that marriage is sacred from a religious and cultural perspective … So that children grow up as adults who respect people and won’t be perpetrators of violent acts.

“Formal education and non-formal education also have a very crucial role. So everyone must work together to teach the value of human dignity, especially women’s and childrens’ rights which are often violated,” she stated.


Meanwhile, Minister of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection I Gusti Ayu Bintang Darmawati visited Sumba on Jul 3 to better understand the issue.

“We want to jointly find solutions or the best efforts to stop all forms of violence that are detrimental to women and children, including the abduction case on Sumba Island which is currently viral on social media,” she said in front of traditional leaders, religious figures, community leaders, academics and the local government officials.

During the visit, the minister signed a memorandum of understanding between the provincial East Nusa Tenggara government and the regional government of Sumba showing their commitment to end the practice.

Mr Nahar, a senior official with the ministry of women empowerment and child protection told CNA that the MOU is being drafted into a legal instrument.

“This document will be the basis for the four districts (West, Eastwest, Central and East Sumba) to draw up action plans to end violence against women and children,” said Mr Nahar, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

Ms Tardi of Komnas Perempuan said what Indonesia needs is a sexual violence eradication Bill.

In early July, the Bill was dropped from this year’s priority list of Bills needed to be discussed by the House of Representatives Legislation Body.

While activists continue to monitor further developments, Ms Melati has slowly recovered from the incident.

After returning home, she did not dare to leave her house for a week out of fear that someone would kidnap her again.

After receiving psychological support and reassurance that the police are still monitoring her case, she resumed her daily routine.

She has forgiven the perpetrators as they are distant relatives and she wants the families to have a harmonious relationship.

Despite that, she wants the practice to be abolished in Sumba forever.

“It should be abolished because I fear for other women who may experience the same thing as I did. Please end it.”

Source: CNA/ks(aw)