Together with leading figures in the Bedouin community, the state will initiate a program to address the problem of polygamy, which Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog described as an "epidemic."

"The phenomenon [of polygamy] has become an epidemic whose emotional, economic and social implications on women and their children are unbearable," Herzog said.

"Unfortunately the State of Israel is not dealing with the issue because it fears confrontation with Bedouin society, even though polygamy is illegal," said Farouk Amrur, chairman of the Beit Berl Jewish-Arab Institute.

The initial stage of the effort will focus on a pilot program for short-term assistance for adults and children of polygamous families. Later, the focus will turn to group assistance.

The program will also include seminars for rehabilitating families, therapy sessions, greater focus on education on child rearing, couples therapy, assistance in managing household finances, etc.

According to initial estimates, the cost of the program for 150 families stands at NIS 500,000. After a year, the pilot will be evaluated, probing whether it contributed to better family functioning. At that stage, a decision will be made on whether to expand the program.

The main aim of the program is to elevate the awareness in the Bedouin community of the severe implications of polygamy, and to rally religious and educational figures to the cause. Another aim is to provide Bedouin women with educational and professional tools, and to educate youths in schools.

The program will be introduced publicly at a conference scheduled for next month at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where social workers, mayors, educators, health officials and religious leaders are expected to participate.

According to studies carried out by Prof. Elian al-Karinawi, head of the Social Work Department at Ben-Gurion University, children in polygamous families often suffer more psychological problems than children in monogamous households. Among the dominant manifestations of such problems are higher rates of criminal activity and dropouts.

Research on a broad sampling of polygamous and monogamous families clearly showed that women in the former suffer from low self-esteem and are more susceptible to depression, especially if they are the first wives in the marriage.

Children also bear the burden of the conflict within the polygamous family, with those of one wife being hostile to the children of another wife, according to Karinawi.

The steering committee of the program includes intellectuals, educators, and law enforcement officials, are aware of the need to take moderate steps and avoid preaching directly to the men against polygamy.

"Marrying another woman is an opportunity for renewal. To strip them of this option in one step is impossible," Amrur said.

Karinawi feels encouraged by interviews with men who married more than one woman and who expressed their dissatisfaction with their family lives. Amrur is also encouraged by the fact that in Arab countries, including Egypt and the Gulf states, the phenomenon of polygamy has declined dramatically in the past decade.

Though there is no clear data on the numbers of polygamous families in Israel, Karinawi estimates that a quarter of Bedouin men have more than one wife.

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