Israel's Marriage Age Law, legislated in 1950, mandates a minimum marriage age of 17. The Knesset has recently approved a bill, in a preliminary hearing, that would raise the marriage age to 18. Implementing such a law would help ease the pressures on female minors to marry at an age when they are not ready. In many cases where minors (mostly female) marry, it is due to pressure from their families, not because they wish to do so or are mature enough for such a major commitment that will affect the rest of their lives.
It's a surprising fact that on this issue Israel lags behind not only the United States and Europe, but also Arab and Muslim countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Oman and Iraq, where the legal marriage age is 18.
Marriages of young girls under 18 have been on the rise. In 2007, 4,309 minors wed in Israel. The number of Muslim minors was double the number of Jewish minors. If you count both 16- and 17-year-old girls, Muslim minors wed at four times the rate of Jewish ones. Some Muslim girls even wed before the age of 16. A large percentage of these are Palestinian girls who marry residents of Israel.
In 2009, 4,656 minors were married in Israel. In 2008, 1,665 young girls between the ages of 14 and 18 brought children into the world. Seventy-seven percent of these girls were Muslim.
Other data show that instances of violence against women double in cases of adolescent marriage. Most teenage girls who wed leave school, and a large percentage of them will stay on or fall below the poverty line.
There are many negative sides to underage marriage. In many cases, especially in tribal and traditional societies like that of the Bedouin, marriage is imposed on young girls, who are viewed as property transferred from the family patriarch to the intended groom. Marriage of young girls, even when it takes place with the girl's consent, often diminishes her ability to acquire an education, develop a career and extricate herself from the cycle of poverty. Studies also point to a high divorce rate, low education level, economic troubles, and the perpetuation of poverty when marriages take place at a young age.
Israel, established in the spirit of Jewish values, should be a light unto the nations in its attitude toward women and not lag behind Iraq. By accepting underage marriages or turning a blind eye to them, we are perpetuating injustice toward minors. The repercussions of underage marriage are serious: immature parenthood, violence, poor education, perpetuating poverty and more.
It is our duty as an enlightened society to allow young girls to study and develop themselves, to acquire an education, obtain a livelihood and build themselves an adult life before embarking on a committed relationship.
The proposed law to raise the marriage age will allow minors to fully exercise their rights under the compulsory education law (which applies to youngsters up to age 18). It will give them the opportunity to acquire higher education and allow for greater social mobility. The law's approval will save thousands of young girls from forced marriages. It will provide vital social benefits. It will directly impact society's weaker sectors, and contribute to closing Israel's socioeconomic gaps.
The writer is a Likud Knesset member and deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office.