The cabinet on Sunday gave its backing to a plan to provide welfare, health, and social services to women and children in polygamous marriages in Israel, incorporate anti-bigamy education in the Israeli school system, and create outreach programs in a bid to raise awareness of the phenomenon.
“I am confident that by combining all of our forces in this war, we will take another step toward eradicating this phenomenon and within a year from today we will see results,” said Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as the proposal received the cabinet’s approval.
Ministers voted in favor of the plan, which would create both a task force of local authorities, government officials, activists and other professionals to hammer out a plan within six months, and a ministerial committee that would implement the plan. Headed by Shaked, the ministerial committee is composed of the education, interior, welfare, health, social equality and agriculture ministers.
The proposal gives the Education Ministry and Health Ministry a four-month deadline to build educational curricula on polygamy and design special health services for women and children in polygamous families. It also tasks the Welfare Ministry with creating a program to integrate these women in the workforce, as well as offering other social services for these families.
Polygamy has been illegal in Israel since 1977, carrying a five-year jail sentence and a fine. However, the law is rarely enforced as many of the marriages are not registered by Israel’s population authorities. The Israel Police has also displayed reluctance to intervene in what is perceived as a deep-rooted cultural and religious practice, primarily found among Israel’s Bedouin communities in the south. A Bedouin member of Knesset, Taleb Abu Arar, is openly married to two wives.
According to figures presented in the cabinet proposal, a third of Bedouin men in Israel are thought to be bigamists and most of the women taken as second or third wives are Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip residing in Israel illegally.
The cabinet proposal also linked polygamy to domestic violence and a slew of psychological disorders.
“Its primary victims are women and children living in polygamous families. The professional literature indicates that women in these families suffer from, among other things, physical and emotional violence, psychological crisis, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, a lack of satisfaction from marital life, diminished family functioning, and economic straits,” it said.
Among children, “many grow up deprived of emotional, educational, and economic [resources],” it said.
The task force will also evaluate child support payments in the framework of polygamous marriages and establish anti-polygamy advocacy programs, it stipulates.
Israel’s National Insurance Institute, which manages and disburses state welfare benefits, has an official designation in its internal guidelines for women in polygamous relationships, referring to them as “enlarged families.” When a woman’s husband leaves her for a second wife, or the second wife is left for a third, the NII has made it exceedingly difficult for that woman to be recognized as a single parent, a status that confers often critical financial benefits.
To receive single-parent benefits, the NII requires proof that the women are living apart from their husbands, but many Bedouin women continue to live near their husbands in the hope that their presence will remind their husbands of their responsibility to provide food and other support.
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.