KUALA LUMPUR • Female Islamic clerics in Indonesia have issued an unprecedented fatwa against child marriage in the world's most populous Muslim country.
The fatwa, which is not legally binding but will be influential, was issued on Thursday after a three-day conference 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.
"Maternal mortality is very high in Indonesia. We, as female clerics, can play a role on the issue of child marriage," conference organiser Ninik Rahayu said by phone from Cirebon in West Java, where the congress was held.
Indonesia has one of the worst records for underage marriage - its high number of child brides puts it among the top 10 countries worldwide - and it is common for girls to marry before they turn 18.
One in six Indonesian girls marries before she turns 18, equivalent to 340,000 girls a year, according to the United Nations children's agency Unicef. About 50,000 of those girls wed before they turn 15.
A government report last year showed almost a quarter of married women aged between 20 and 24 had entered wedlock when they were under 18.
The fatwa, or religious edict, called underage marriage "harmful" and said its prevention was mandatory. In issuing the fatwa, the women clerics cited studies showing that many Indonesian child brides could not continue their studies once wed, and half of their marriages ended in divorce.
Early marriage not only makes it more likely that girls will quit school, campaigners say, it also increases the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.
The congress drew about 300 participants, including women leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Malaysia.
The congress also issued two other rulings - against environmental destruction and sexual violence - which the clerics said are against Islamic teaching and fundamental human rights.