The Knesset is due next week to vote in a preliminary reading on a bill to increase the legal marriage age from 17 to 18 years. Israel is one of the few Western countries that allows people to marry at 17, even though according to various international conventions, all individuals under the age of 18 are considered children. The bill was submitted to the Knesset by MKs Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) and Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad). However, much of the work behind the bill was carried out by The Working Group for Equality in Personal Status issues. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is a founding member of the organization, which works on behalf of equality between the sexes. According to ACRI lawyer Sonia Boulos, child marriage is a phenomenon which almost exclusively affects girls in societies that promote traditional and generally subservient roles for women. In many cases, the institution is actively supported by religious leaders and politicians. Boulos told The Jerusalem Post that the bill is opposed by both Arab and Jewish religious parties, including Shas and Ra'am-Ta'al, except for MK Ahmed Tibi. As a member of the coalition, Shas maintains that it has the right to veto the bill because of the coalition agreement which pledges to maintain the religious status quo unless all members agree to any proposed change. Boulos maintained there was no connection between the law and the religious status quo. She also said that child marriages are a phenomenon in Jewish haredi society as well as Arab society. Between the years 2000 and 2005, a total of 10,272 girls under the age of 18 were married. Of those, almost 90 percent were aged 17, while about 1,000 were even younger. "These figures indicate that most families are law-abiding," said Boulos. "They wait until the girl is 17 in order to marry her off in accordance with the law." Thus, if the legal age is raised by another year, most families will wait the extra year, she said. Boulos added that the year was crucial because most Arab girls are in their last year of high school at 17. If they remain unmarried, they will be able to complete their high school matriculation. Even if they marry the following year, they will be able to go back for higher education later on or get a better job. "The extra year will empower them," she said. Originally, the Working Group conducted a public campaign, first in the schools and later aimed at parents, to persuade girls to wait until at least 18 before marrying. However, according to statistics in Arab girls' schools, the number of 17-year-old brides has increased in recent years. Therefore, the group decided to opt for legislation because it might be more effective. According to Boulos, child marriage violates the right to health because the girls often become pregnant before their bodies are fully developed. It infringes on the right to education because many girls are coerced into becoming full-time housekeepers and drop out of school. It violates the right to emotional well-being because some of the girls are not yet equipped emotionally for marriage and parenthood.