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Turkey’s child Brides

Despite being illegal, the practice is still in use and leaves thousands of minors between 10 and 17 years old without a future, forced to marry  men that, on some occasions, are six times their age in order to settle the financial shortages of their families or out of tradition.


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Yolaidy Martínez Ruíz

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It happens in a country that is the birthplace of multiple civilisations across five thousand years of history, and where women are considered a mere sexual object that can be bought, sold and even inherited.

Official statistics estimate that more than 180 thousand young girls in Turkey are currently married, although that number could be higher as the majority of cases lack legal proof.

The phenomenon is common on a national level yet occurs more in the rural south eastern regions and Istanbul, the main city and ancestral point of transit between Eastern and Western cultures.

In general, the victims ignore the marriage arranged by their parents and future husband up until the ceremony, which are nearly always conducted as a religious ritual, with no maintenance guarantees or other benefits for the women.

At that moment their childhood dies and so begins a life for these child brides, defined by sexual abuse, physical violence, forced labour and even prostitution, which in many cases ends in suicide.

The new responsibilities, as well as the consequent premature pregnancy, distances them from their studies, from all social contact, and condemns them to suffer in silence the hurt, humiliation, anxiety, depression, fatigue and illnesses.

“Premature marriage is an obstacle for women. To force a young girl to marry before completing her mental and physical development brings with it irreversible mental disorders”, thinks Nilufer Narli, dean of the Phsycology faculty at Bahcesehir University, Istanbul.

Last November, the women’s organisation Ucan Supurge presented to parliament the results of a study carried out on the subject across 54 provinces of the Eurasian country during 2008.

According to the investigation, 28.2% of Turkish weddings involve child brides, although in some areas of the south east this figure exceeds 50% of the matrimonial ties.

One in three women under the age of 49 married before they were 18 years old, evidence that this custom is entrenched in Turkey and is in fact more common in the large cities, Sevna Somuncuoglu, an activist for the organisation, estimated.

Looking at the Pain

Ucan Supurge is determined to fight marriages to child brides, and with that goal in mind, since 2010 it has also developed a national campaign to raise awareness of this practice and educate the population on the need to stop it.

Selen Doga, general coordinator of the women’s organisation, indicated that the screening of documentaries, the handing out of material containing information alluding to the problems, and the taking place of educational chats are a few of the activities considered for the project.

The group works, as well, on collecting 54,000 signatures in order to make the legislators raise the legal minimum age for marriage from 17 to 18 years old.

Their strategy has already received positive results, and amongst their achievements is the production of various audiovisuals on the subject, the most recent of which is the soap opera Life Continues, from the popular singer Mahsun Kirmizigul, now turned screenwriter and film director.

This work shows the penuries of Hayat, a 15 year old forced to marry an elderly man of 70 in order to relieve the poverty of her large family.

Kirmizigul based the story of the soap on the real life testimonies of the child brides interviewed in one of Ucan Supurge’s documentaries.

On the other hand, the ruling Justice and Development Party presented a motion to the National Assembly this month with a view to increasing, over the next four years, the age of obligatory education, from its current 7 to 15.

The Vice-president of the group, Nurettin Canikli, explained that the regulations look to take on preuniversity education (15 to 19).

If parliament approves the measure, there will at least a legal instrument to protect the rights of female adolescents to complete their education.

Alongside Ucan Supurge, other women’s collectives fight in Turkey against a punishment inextricably bound to premature marriages: domestic and gender related violence.

It is estimated that 40% of the country’s female population has suffered physical abuse at the hands of their husbands due to jealousy or anger.

Between February 2010 and August 2011 the police registered 80,000 arrests for mistreatments in the home, also the main cause of female suicides.

Human rights defenders made the most of 14th February, Valentines Day, just gone, to advocate the end of the phenomenon and rescue the respect for conjugal culture within Turkish society. PL

(Translated by Alice Brady)

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