A coalition of members of parliament and women's rights activists have joined hands in an attempt to raise Israel's minimum age for marriage to 18, saying that young wedlock harms the girls' health and violates their right to education.
The practice of young weddings is mostly prevalent amongst Arab Muslims and to a lesser extent Orthodox Jews, according to the Working Group for Equality in Personal Status Issues and experts who complain that because these two groups are marginalised in society the problem is ignored.
Currently, 17 is the legal limit, without a special court order, and about 1,700 girls marry at this age annually. Each year there are around 200 known cases of girls aged 16 or younger getting married. More underage incidents probably occur but never reach the public domain, the Working Group and social workers said. (The Working Group is a large umbrella coalition of many organisations and individuals, including non-governmental organisations, lawyers, shelter administrators and social workers).
According to these experts, what appears to be happening is that girls as young as 14 or 15 are married off, but their matrimony is only legally registered after they turn 17.
The police do not enforce the existing laws, the Working Group charged, but two representatives from the Israeli Police Youth Division told a Knesset (parliament) panel on 20 November that generally they do not have enough leads to catch the criminals. Two cases have been presented to the state prosecutor's office in recent years, they reported.
Maqbula Nassr, a social worker, said at the panel that officials in the religious courts are involved in the scam, storing away marriage contracts until the girls reach 17.
Right to education
"A 17-year-old is still a child, and should be in school," Michael Malchior, who helped draft the proposed new law, told the panel. He pointed out that Israel's education law requires 17-year-olds to be in school.
|By raising the age one year, we guarantee that more girls will finish high school.|
Activists say that if a girl finishes high school, she will want to continue studying and the actual age of marriage will slowly rise by several years. Women will get better jobs and become more independent.
"I'd tell any girl not to get married until she's older," Raida Biady, from Israel's northern city of Haifa, told IRIN. She married at 16.
"I liked to read and write. I studied until 10th grade. But after the wedding, I discovered my new husband was illiterate. He stopped my studies," she said.
Baidy, after divorcing her abusive spouse three years ago, went back to school and founded a legal programme to help women with family issues.
Another woman, Zainab, said she was forced to marry a man at 15. She attempted suicide several times, trying to escape the arranged marriage.
Other health concerns over young marriages were also raised by a representative from the Ministry of Health, as well as Dr Ahmed Tibi, a Knesset member.
Under age marriages lead to "many young pregnancies, which are both physically and mentally damaging", said Tibi, a gynaecologist by profession.
Batya Artman, the legal adviser to Israel's Ministry of Social Affairs, backed the activists, and said various UN conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory, demand the age be raised.
The main opposition to the proposal comes from Israel's Jewish ultra-orthodox parties, mainly Shas, a member of the governing coalition, which used its clout to have the ministerial committee on legislation reject the proposal, making it harder to pass in Knesset.
|If a girl says she's ready and she wants to marry, who are we to say she can't? It's her right.|
“If a girl says she's ready and she wants to marry, who are we to say she can't? It's her right," he said. In most cases it was the girl who was young and "girls are more mature than boys".
Whether devout Muslims or Jews, experts say the problem is the difficulty conservative circles have in dealing with Israel 's modernity, including sexual activity at a young age.
However, Malchior, an ultra Orthodox rabbi himself, refuted any claims that for the sake of religion the age should remain below 18: "It's not against Jews or Muslims, but it's the best thing for society, for the children," he said.