Bar-Ilan prof. seeks global standard for fair divorce

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who heads UN panel on women's rights, decries lack of progress in Israel.

agunot protest 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
agunot protest 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
UNITED NATIONS - A longtime legal advocate for women's rights in Israel is poised to create a new international standard to protect women seeking divorce. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University, says dissolving a marriage or partnership can have severe economic consequences for women. As vice president of a UN committee on women's rights, she has led a working group on the economic impact of divorce since last year; on Tuesday, she will address the full committee, thereby launching the drafting process for new international guidelines that account for women's housing rights and recognize their earning potential during divorce proceedings. In UN terminology, Kaddari is seeking a new "general recommendation" for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The new article would lay out economic protections for those seeking divorce, says Kaddari, chairwoman of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan. Such a recommendation would have legal authority under the UN convention, the apparatus adopted in 1979 to guard women's rights and prevent gender-based discrimination and violence. The convention has been amended a number of times since then, notably in 1992, when the committee issued general recommendation No. 19 to fight and eradicate violence against women. "Things have developed since then... we know much more about laws and how they affect women, especially the economics of marriage and the economics of divorce, and the economic consequences of divorce," Kaddari said. The 43-year-old mother of four was elected in 2006 to a four-year term on the UN committee, which every four years reviews the status of women's rights in a particular country. The committee's "concluding observations" are meant to be taken as a blueprint for improvement. For developing countries in particular, the observations are significant in as much as foreign aid depends on their commitment to fulfilling international standards for human rights and other issues. During a recent conversation in a cafeteria in the heart of the UN, Kaddari described the committee's work. "Obviously, it's not an interrogation, but it does resemble cross-examination, because we do ask very pertinent questions. We do press then and it's all done, obviously, in a very UN, diplomatic, polite way. But it's very serious," she said. In four years on the committee, she has seen progress - though such movement eludes her home country, a particularly vexing problem, she said. "Israel's government is far from being committed to the advancement of women's rights," she said. After her UN committee produced a report on Israel, none of the documents was translated into Hebrew and governmental officials largely ignored its findings, she said. Indeed, advancing women's rights is the main objective of the Rackman Center. Last year, the center, in partnership with the International Coalition for Agunah Rights, advocated successfully for the Knesset to amend the Spousal Property Relations Law, reducing a man's ability to refuse to give his wife a get, a religious bill of divorce. "Some people would describe us as fighting against the rabbinic courts," she said. "I don't like to say that, but we are there to watch over them and to try to change things from within and from outside." Halperin-Kaddari said despite Israel's self-identification as a Western society, this "is absolutely not the case" regarding basic women's rights and issues related to marriage and divorce. "In that sense, we are very much located in the Middle East." But she concedes that implementing the UN's general recommendation on divorce will be hard won in other countries, and the process will require delicate footwork because of the sensitivity of family law. "When we come here with a set of very liberal, Western-oriented international standards, we will definitely face objections on religious, cultural grounds and we will have to deal with that," she said. "But I really believe that it's crucial to have a set of international standards that all counties will have to align with." She envisions a draft that stipulates equal standards in the outcome of family or relationship dissolution. She hopes to expand that standard to those in "de facto" relationships so that women in nonofficial partnerships will be protected. Halperin-Kaddari also wants to recognize "disparity in human capital," a situation where a woman may have sacrificed her earning potential if she stayed home to care for her children while her husband advanced his career. In developing countries, she seeks to arm women with equal rights to their share of the family's housing and agricultural assets so that "she cannot be just thrown out of the house, to return to her own family, and lose her children along the way." "It's very complex because we really have to form the widest possible norm that will be as relevant and as effective to the developing world and to the developed counties," Halperin-Kaddari said. In Israel, where property law is a matter for the civil law system, the state will have no problem with UN convention's guidelines, she said. Implementation, however, is likely to remain a difficult issue because marriage and divorce are matters of religious law. "Even if [women] have very advanced rights under the secular law in Israel, they may find themselves needing to give these rights away to have their divorces. That's still the case even after we adopt this recommendation and even after we develop these international standards," Halperin-Kaddari said. "As long as Israel is under the exclusive jurisdiction of religious law, women might still find themselves jeopardized and needing to give up all their secular and international rights," she said. Barring new interpretation of religious law by rabbinic authorities, that can only be changed if and when political change comes to Israel."