Finally in Israel: A girl is a girl, not a bride

Each year 4,500 children below the age of 18 marry in Israel, two thirds Muslim, one third Jewish.

girl in class 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
girl in class 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 marry.
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.
They argued 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 “cultural” argument.
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 women.
Often these delegations charge that the CEDAW Committee undermines their cultural and social fabric by demanding they end such harmful practices as child marriages.
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 position.
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.
We 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 as brides.
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).