23 Nov 2010

Israeli politicians and women's advocates call for immediate change to polygamy law to protect rights of women and children

The Jerusalem Post - February 24, 2010

MKs call for immediate change to polygamy law

Move comes following the arrest of Goel Ratzon


Knesset members on Tuesday called for an immediate change to the country’s laws on polygamy, which allow prosecution of a man married to multiple women but not of a man in permanent relationships with more than one woman.

The move comes following the arrest last month of a Tel Aviv man who was living with 17 women and fathered 39 children with them. While the authorities knew about the cult-like activities of 59-year-old Goel Ratzon for many years, he could not be arrested for his polygamous family because only one woman was officially married to him. He was eventually detained by police on sexual enslavement charges, and his expanded family – which authorities claim degraded the women – was disbanded by social workers.

“The practice of being partnered to multiple women is obsolete, and as a society that supports equality we need to find a way to end it for good,” commented Tzipi Hotovely, chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of the Women.

Hotovely told those gathered at the Tuesday meeting, which included Arab-Israeli MKs and women’s rights activists from the Beduin sector where polygamy is rife, that she had already begun working on improvements to the current law that would include the full prosecution of any man either officially married to, or conducting a shared life with, multiple partners.

“The incentive behind this meeting was the case of Goel Ratzon and the sense that he managed to get around the law and have a family life with more than one woman,” said Hotovely. “Therefore I plan to change the current law, which only punishes those who are officially married to more than one person.”

As well as discussing the Ratzon case, the committee also heard from Beduin women’s organizations, which claimed that the practice is becoming much more common.

According to a three-year study published last year by Prof. Alean Al-Krenawi from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, roughly 20-25 percent of Israel’s Beduin families practice polygamy, with the majority of the women and children in such families suffering from deep psychological, economic and social difficulties.

On Tuesday, Beduin women described to the Knesset committee the severity of the situation in Negev towns, blaming the continuing practice of polygamy on economic factors more than traditional considerations. They described how between 40-60% of young women are forced to drop out of school before graduating, and with more than 90% of women unable to find work, they have no choice but to enter into polygamous marriages.

“Polygamy in any form is a direct attack on human rights,” stated MK Dov Henin (Hadash). “It is especially damaging to the rights of women and children, and as a progressive society we should not agree to this practice... If we are to make any changes in this area, it is very important to gain the support of the Arab-speaking leadership and work together with the education system, social welfare services, police and the prosecution.”

Balad MK Jamal Zahalka added that the problem went far beyond changing the law, and that the social problems caused by polygamous marriages needed to be dealt with, too.

“[Polygamy] creates poverty, violence, despair, neglected children and people left disabled socially by society,” he told the committee. “We must also look at how we can improve financial opportunities for women in the Negev so that they will not have to rely on such a practice.”

“The calls for changing this practice are coming from the field, from women themselves,” observed MK Haneen Zoabi, also from Balad. “So now is the time for us to really make changes to this phenomenon.”

Concluding the hearing, Hotovely said that a field trip would be arranged to meet with leaders of the Beduin sector in order to find a solution for change. She also reiterated that key improvements to the current law against polygamy were already underway.

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