Associate professor at the Australian National University
The age of menarche, when girls first start menstruating, is falling in Indonesia. My recently published paper shows this is a result of improved living conditions.
The average age of menarche used to be around 15 years, but it has now decreased to about 12.5 in rural areas and 11.7 years in urban areas.
As Indonesia continues to prosper, all indications point to menarche starting even earlier.
This has implications for the health of Indonesia’s female children given the customary linking in some parts of the country of the age of menarche to when a girl can marry.
Indonesia’s marriage law specifies the legal minimum age of marriage as 16 for girls and 19 for boys. However, increasing piety leads more Muslim parents to turn to religious courts seeking permission for their underage daughters to marry.
According to a recent report on child marriage from Plan International Australia, 90 percent of applications to religious courts for exemption to the marriage age are approved, and the number of applications is increasing.
While the religious courts are likely to consider individual circumstances when evaluating exemptions, physiology is also part of the decision and may be based on whether a girl has started her period.
This biological marker is often relied upon in the absence of documentation authenticating a girl’s age.
A lack of documentation is common among all children in Indonesia.
Indonesians are only obliged to have an ID card when they turn 17. Before that age, other documentation is required. However, “Nine out of every 10 child marriages involve girls and boys who do not have birth certificates,” says the PIA report.
The biological trend of the decreasing menarche and decisions of the religious courts are now working against young girls in Indonesia.
Although not all child marriages are immediately consummated, more girls may be at risk of damage to their health, as their young bodies are often not fully ready for childbirth.
They may also be at risk of being denied a childhood and adolescence given evidence shows 85 percent of girls cease their education upon marriage.
The harm that exists from underage marriage is already acute and may worsen in the long term, as generational gender gaps in education and social participation widen.
A sensible way forward might be to prescribe in marriage law, the process by which religious courts can assess cases of marriage involving girls younger than the minimum age.
My research accentuates the urgency for an executive decision in Indonesia on child marriage to enable Indonesian girls to enjoy their childhoods and embrace life’s opportunities.
Professor Pierre van der Eng, is an academic with the research School of Business and Economics at The Australian National University.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.