“Marriage under 18 – a tragedy,” is the motto of the recent campaign in the Israeli-Arab community, an initiative of the Committee for Equality in Family Law in the Arab Society in Israel. The campaign aims to prevent mothers and fathers from marrying off their underage daughters.
The campaign includes testimony from doctors who explain the damage that arises from pregnancy at an early age, and attempts to create a discussion on the status of girls who are still in school by directly addressing their parents.
The phenomenon of underage marriage, often against the will of the young girl, is very common in Arab society. According to the Central Statistics Bureau, 1360 Arab-Israeli girls younger than 17 were married in 2004. However, these are partial statistics: Most underage marriages are not listed, so numbers are in fact much higher.
According to some estimates, 44% of Arab women were married before the age of 19. “The phenomenon isn’t limited to a certain socio-economic class,” says Nasrin Ealimi-Kabha, the coordinator of the committee. “It exists in the Bedouin community in the Negev, but also in the cities, as well as villages, and in high class families.”
“Most girls who are married before they are 18 usually do not graduate from high school because there are certain expectations from them. This is what we see in the field,” says Ealimi-Kabha. “This means that they do not have a high school diploma or an education, and marriage interrupts the natural courses of their lives. After the wedding, employment and self-fulfillment are not even an option. Many of them think it is necessary because that is the way they were raised, but some of them are aware that this is an injustice.”
“The parents’ culture has a deep affect on these girls, and they adopt their parents’ thinking,” Ealimi-Kabha adds. “This is why their hopes and expectations are so low and they think marriage is an escape. But after the wedding they are disillusioned and realize that they went from under their father’s rule, to their husband’s rule. In addition, men who marry minors assume they are easy to manipulate and obedient. This creates a situation where they did not have a free choice in the matter, but are already in a marriage they cannot exit.”
'A Victim of the System'
Will a girl who was married while still in school have to quit her studies? Ealimi-Kabha explains that in addition to the social and familial pressure to stay home and be a wife and mother, the establishment does nothing to help these young brides.
For example, some schools have asked young brides to leave the school because they were a negative role model for other girls. “Educational establishments are not equipped for dealing with this phenomenon; the young brides get pregnant quickly and are faced with a problem. They are victims of their fathers and families, who married them off at such a young age, and then they become a victim of the system itself, which threw them out.”
There are many reasons for marrying off girls at a young age, says Ealimi-Kabha. Sometimes it is due to financial difficulties which cause fathers to marry off their daughters to avoid having to provide for them. However, early marriage is also seen as protective of the honor of young girls. “This is another sign of the belief that women are inherently intended to be mothers,” Ealimi-Kabha elaborates.
“People say to themselves that all girls will marry and become a mother eventually, so why not do it now? In addition, modernization is very frightening to parents, and they prefer to have their daughters married to prevent their exposure to modern civilization,” he said.
In turns out, though, that in addition to the physical, emotional and social damage to young brides, the marriage does not always work out. Ealimi-Kabha claims that 10% of the Arab women divorced in Israel in 2004 were younger than 19 years old. “These girls did not know what marriage was, or how to choose, and they made this commitment before they were ready. The marriage becomes a constant source of frustration, which can be seen in the many reports of depression. A study done in Gaza revealed that 30% of married minors contemplated suicide,” she says.
The reactions to this campaign encourage the activity of the Committee for Equality in Family Law in the Arab Society in Israel, a coalition which has been working to promote women’s rights and human rights in Arab society. “The reactions are the important thing,” summarizes Ealimi-Kabha. “It is important to us to create a dialogue. It is important that there is a discussion of this topic. If the phenomenon is spreading it says something about the future of Arab society and its decline, and signals to us that discrimination against women will only increase."