It’s hard to believe that child marriage is alive and common in Israel, just as
it is in Tanzania and Bangladesh. Each year 4,500 children below the age of 18
marry in Israel, two thirds Muslim, one third Jewish. Ninety percent of them are
girls, half of them are under 17, about 500 are not even 16 – and these are only
the official numbers.
Untenable as it may sound, many of these marriages
were legal. Until just recently, 17-year-old Israeli girls and boys could
legally marry. They could not purchase a house or a car, they could not vote in
national elections, and they could not be drafted into the army, but they could
But last month, after long years of struggle within the
Knesset and with the support of civil society, this absurdity was finally put to
an end. As of now, the legal age of marriage is 18 (with a provision for
judicially permitted marriage of 16- and 17-year-olds only in exceptional
cases). Additionally, all relevant government agencies are required to report
annually to the Knesset on enforcement of this law. Moreover, marriage below the
age of 16 can no longer take place under any circumstances.
The road to
this finishing line was long and difficult, and the memorable debate that took
place in the Knesset during the reading of the law accurately reflected the
heart of the matter. It also shed light on the challenges to implementing this
law. One by one the ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset, all male, stepped up
to the podium, arguing, in the name of democracy, for the right to privacy, for
their people’s human rights and respect for their tradition and norms, and for
allowing rabbinical courts to permit girls in their communities to marry at 17,
at 16, and even below.
They accused the Israeli legislature of hypocrisy
in restricting the liberty of 16-year-old girls to marry.
They blamed the
state for not being respectful of their internal culture.
that their way of life, including such phenomena as child marriages, should be
allowed to continue uninterrupted on the premise that it causes no harm, and
that the state should refrain from interfering with these minority cultural
norms. Notably, no Arab MP took the floor, either to defend or object to the
Watching this debate, it struck me that these
arguments are reminiscent of those that we hear during many of the review
sessions of CEDAW, the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against
Women, when governments attempt to defend social and cultural norms that violate
their international obligations to end discrimination against
Often these delegations charge that the CEDAW Committee undermines
their cultural and social fabric by demanding they end such harmful practices as
These practices invariably harm girls and women, while
those who defend the practices are invariably men who claim to represent the
entire community and use religion, tradition and custom to justify their
The CEDAW Committee, like other United Nations human rights
bodies, does not accept these arguments.
And as unacceptable as the
arguments are, they do express the excruciating challenge we face when
confronting such entrenched social norms and aiming to change them. It is ironic
that the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community uses this vocabulary, claiming to be
just a little old group of innocent people who want to be left alone to practice
their customs, while in fact at the same time they want to define the entire
Israeli culture and shape the laws of Israel to suit their beliefs.
should not forget for a moment that the introduction of civil marriage and
divorce in Israel has constantly been hampered by the ultra-Orthodox parties,
and does not seem possible in the near future.
This time an impressive
majority of the Israeli Knesset stood up to the ultra-Orthodox, rejecting their
insistence on exceptionalism and bringing Israeli law in line with the
international standard that sees children as children, and girls as girls, not
Indeed, Girls not Brides is the title of an international
campaign to end child marriage worldwide. This campaign is crucial, since the
tragic reality of child marriage, just like the tragic reality of other harmful
practices, too often continues regardless of the law. In Israel, too, girls
under 17 were married notwithstanding the prohibition of marriage below that
age. Enforcement is a real challenge in these matters, due to the combination of
multiculturalist rhetoric with government non-interventionism, sadly familiar in
other countries as well.
In Israel the challenge is enlarged by the
political tension with respect to the Israeli-Arab minority. Despite internal
challenges and tensions, with this new law Israel is finally on its way to
meeting its responsibility as a modern state to protect all its girls from
becoming child brides.
The author is the chair of Bar-Ilan University’s
Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women, which initiated the process of
amending the Age of Marriage Law. She is a member and past vice-chair of the UN
Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
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