Female Islamic clerics in Indonesia have issued an unprecedented fatwa against child marriage.
The fatwa, which is not legally binding but will be influential, was issued after a three-day congress of female clerics in the country.
The clerics urged the government to raise the minimum legal age for women to marry to 18 from the current 16.
Indonesia is a majority Muslim country and has among the highest number of child brides in the world.
According to the UN’s children office Unicef, one in four women in Indonesia marries before the age of 18.
Fatwas are issued regularly in Indonesia, but usually by the Indonesian Ulema Council – the highest Islamic authority in the country which is made up almost entirely of men.
Who are Indonesia’s female clerics?
Hundreds of women descended on Cirebon, on Java Island, for the Indonesian KUPI Women’s Ulema Congress.
Most of the clerics – experts in Islamic sacred law and theology – were from Indonesia, but speakers travelled from as far away as Kenya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to take part in the conference, said to be the first major gathering of female Muslim clerics.
Female clerics, or “ulema”, have existed in Indonesia for hundreds of years, but their role has been played down previously. Nowadays, they help empower their communities and lead educational institutes, organisers say. It is hoped the congress will highlight the vital role they play.
Steering committee chairman Badriyah Fayumi told the BBC: “Through this conference, we want to state that female clerics exist, and have been proven to contribute, and this is the time to acknowledge their existence, and to give an appreciation for the… contribution of the female clergy.”
The committee will now present its recommendations to the relevant groups – including the government – which will then decide on whether or not to take them any further.
The fatwa called underage marriage “harmful” and said preventing it was mandatory.
“Female clerics know the issues and obstacles women face, we can take action and do not just wait for the government to protect these children,” Ninik Rahayu, the conference organiser, told Reuters.
The female clerics cited studies which highlight that many Indonesian child brides are not allowed to continue their education and half the marriages end in divorce.
The child marriage fatwa was one of a series issued during the congress. There were also edicts against women being sexually abused, and environmental destruction.