Issue 8: The Marginalized Position of Bedouin Women
Furthermore, the frequent demolitions of designated 'illegal buildings' have a disproportionate impact on women, who do not play any role in the decision-making process of building a home without a license. Bedouin women face a double impact from house demolitions: usually their homes are their only space for public and private activities, and no alternative accommodations are provided to them by the Israeli State institutions after their houses have been demolished.8
Please provide information on measures taken to address the marginalized position of Bedouin women with regard to various economic, social and cultural rights, especially those living in unrecognized villages.
Bedouin women in Israel represent the most disempowered group among Israel's poorest and most neglected minority population. Already belonging to the most vulnerable sector of the Palestinian national minority, they face serious discrimination related to their society's social perceptions of the status of women, social rules and customs. Indeed, their precarious situation is expressed in high poverty rates, financial dependence, and lack of education: more than 90% of Bedouin women are unemployed, over 77% of teenage girls residing in unrecognized villages drop out of school,6 and some 60% of women over the age of 35 are illiterate.7 The absence of an explicit guarantee of the right to equality in the Basic Laws or even in ordinary statutes diminishes the power of this right and leaves the Palestinian minority in Israel in general, and Palestinian women citizens of Israel in particular, vulnerable to direct and indirect discrimination because the implementation of the right to equality may vary from case to case, depending on the Israeli Supreme Court’s interpretation of the facts and the law. The rate of polygamy among the Bedouins is 30% and increasing. Although polygamy is a criminal offence the law is not enforced among the Bedouins.
Bedouin women in particular suffer from the discriminatory policies that Israel continues to direct towards the Bedouin community. Of fundamental significance is the unrecognized status of most of the Bedouin villages, which has disproportionate consequences for the women’s access to education and health, as well as for their civil status rights. All of which additionally contribute to a fertile ground for the practice of polygamy, which in itself acutely harmful to women.
As the primary child caregivers, and as women in general, Bedouin women are especially affected by limited access to healthcare and clinics in the Negev, and particularly in unrecognized villages. According to a report by the Israeli Health Ministry, the infant mortality rate of Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel living in the Negev is the highest in Israel, and a lack in infant welfare personnel leads to less pregnant women and infants receiving the care and guidance they need.10 Indeed, over half of six-month-old Bedouin infants suffer from anemia, as opposed to 10% of Jewish infants. As they grow older, Bedouin children suffer disproportionally from growth disorders, nutritional deficiencies, and underweight conditions that could cause serious damage: 9% of Bedouin children under the age of five suffer from growth delays and 4.4% are underweight, with Bedouin girls suffering sevenfold from growth problems and ten times more from weight problems than boys. Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel living in unrecognized villages are in much poorer condition than those living in permanent communities: children born in unrecognized villages have a lower average weight at birth, are 2.4 times more underweight at the ages of six and seven-years-old and have a lower vaccination rate than Arab Palestinian Bedouin children citizens of Israel living in permanent communities. Concerning Bedouin women with disabilities or illnesses residing in the Negev, the situation is problematic. The lack of adequate health services in the region and the lack of public transportation, together with the traditional Bedouin culture that objects to women’s mobility in the public sphere, make it difficult for Bedouin women to seek appropriate medical attention.
The measures taken by the Government, such as organizing business workshops and granting scholarships, to empower the Bedouin women are only but the first steps of recognizing their weak status in society. In order for Bedouin women to achieve equality, to fully enjoy their economic social and cultural rights and to achieving a better standard of living, it is crucial for the government abandon its discriminating policies against Bedouins in general and to specifically recognize the unrecognized villages.9
The State's third periodic Report duly notes improvements in the health of Bedouin infants and details special projects the state instituted to improve the health and health care services to Bedouin Arabs in a two-page-long section on the subject.11 Yet the overly optimistic tone adopted by the Report masks the critical realities facing Bedouin women and children in their quest for their right to adequate healthcare and helps soften the sharp disparities between the health circumstances of the Bedouin community and the rest of Israel. Furthermore, the state rejects the role the illegal status of these villages plays in these inequalities. This correlation, with the status of the villages barring vital investment in health infrastructure in the villages, is put forth in a 2008 Physicians for Human Rights report, ‘Ana Huna – Gender and Health in the Unrecognized Villages of the Negev’, whose grim conclusions the State's Report disputes.12
A lack of financial security, and a conflation of poor educational, health, and living conditions contribute to the continual low social status retained by the majority of Bedouin women in their community. For instance, the shortage of high schools and classrooms has caused the local patriarchy to increase its supervision of women. In such a disempowered context, the practice of polygamy has thrived within many family structures, with the practice increasing by one percent a year in the last two decades to today characterize 20-36% of Bedouin households. While the State’s Report discusses the establishment of a center for the welfare of Bedouin women, which encompasses a variety of social services with the aim of helping and protecting women including their health, polygamous relations – which induces low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, problematic family functions, and is characterized by higher rates of domestic violence, poverty, and family conflict – is not broached.
On an international level, although the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has not addressed Polygamy directly, the CEDAW states that polygamy violates the sixth section of the international convention relating to the right of women to equality with men in marriage and family life. The CEDAW moreover considers polygamy to be a financial and mental burden laid on women and their children; therefore it requested from states that have ratified the convention to limit and ban this practice.
In theory, Israeli law likewise forbids polygamy and considers it a criminal defense. Article 176 of the penal code of the year 1977 states that the maximum penalty in a polygamy case is five year imprisonment. However, this law is not implemented when it comes to the Bedouin population. The authorities claim inability of tracking down the incidents of polygamy in the tight-knit Bedouin community, due to the lack of the official registration of plural marriages with the Ministry of Interior. However, various data demonstrates that the state and its institutions are not adopting a serious approach towards reducing this phenomenon. In fact, the State is capable of detecting cases of polygamy even if the other marriages aren’t registered in the Ministry of Interior. For example, through the National Insurance Institute, which invests much effort to obtain data about all wives in order to reduce their eligibility for different kinds of pensions. Women in polygamous marriages are deprived of the guaranteed minimal income pensions and instead receive lower incomes allocated to ‘extended families’. In other words, the State recognizes polygamy to lower the costs of pensions provided by the National Insurance Institute but refuses to implement its penal law.