The Knesset is expected to vote this week on two bills that would raise the legal age of marriage in Israel by a year to 18.

The proposals' sponsors say the aim is to prevent the forced marriage of girls, particularly in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, before they have graduated from high school and gained the maturity to make critical life decisions.

The first of the two draft laws is sponsored by MK Hanin Zuabi (Balad ). This morning, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is scheduled to decide whether to give cabinet backing to the second bill, proposed by MK Yariv Levin (Likud ) and initiated by Likud MK and Deputy Minister for the Advancement of Young People, Students and Women, Gila Gamliel.

"In many cases, especially in tribal and traditional societies such as the Bedouin, marriage is forced on young teenage girls, who are viewed as property that is passed from her father to the intended husband," Levin explained.

"Child marriage, even with the minors' consent, often hurts their potential to obtain an education, to develop a career and to break out of the cycle of poverty," he said, adding that research has shown that early marriages have higher rates of divorce, domestic violence and economic problems than other marriages.

Supporters of the bill say that raising the marriage age would end, for example, the absurd situation in which a legally married woman who becomes pregnant before turning 18 must obtain parental consent for certain prenatal procedures.

The Association for Civil Rights for Israel, which has actively supported the legislation for at least four years, recently sent a letter to the chairman of the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child, MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ), urging him to support the bill.

The Central Bureau of Statistics reported that, in 2008, the number of 17-year-old girls who married was 1,455; an additional 636 girls were aged 16 or younger when they wed. Only 69 boys aged 17 or less married in 2008.

The proposal to raise the marriage age was first mooted in 2004, by the National Council for the Child. Since then, a number of MKs, including Zuabi, have tried to promote the amendment, but under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox the cabinet has repeatedly decided not to support it.

A study carried out by ACRI indicated that for years the state did not even enforce the law to prevent minors under 17 from marrying: In 2004, no criminal cases were opened for underage marriage, even though the practice is widespread in certain communities in Israel. Only four such cases were investigated in 2003.

The minimum age for marriage is 18 in most European countries, including Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as other Western states. The bills under discussion would not affect child marriages that have the approval of a family court due to special circumstances, such as pregnancy. In a 2004 Knesset session on the change, Education Ministry representatives affirmed the ministry's support for raising the marriage age.

Numerous social-welfare organizations - including Isha L'Isha, the Haifa Feminist Center, and Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel - sent a letter to MKs urging them to vote for the measure. "Marrying a person under the age of 18 (especially a female ) is a direct violation of their fundamental rights, as guaranteed in the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel has ratified," the letter stated.

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