Turkey: Motion ‘protecting child marriage’ draws debate

Critics accuse proposal of “encouraging child rape” but officials say it will protect those too young to marry legally.

Women walk as they hold pictures of Ozgecan Arslan during a protest against domestic violence, in Istanbul
Women walk holding pictures of Ozgecan Arslan, a student who was raped and murdered, during a protest against domestic violence [File: Murad Sezer/Reuters]-

A government proposal to quash the convictions of men convicted of child sex assaults if they marry their victim has sparked furious debate in Turkey, with critics accusing it of encouraging child rape and the ruling party insisting it will protect those who were too young to marry legally.

Thursday’s motion stated that in the case of sexual abuse of a minor committed before November 11, if the act was committed without “force, threat, or any other restriction on consent” and if the aggressor “marries the victim” the sentence will be postponed.

The motion was issued as part of a 49-article bill draft in a night-time parliamentary session. The motion passed, but the bill did not receive a majority vote.

The parliament will vote again on the entire bill on November 22, and if it passes, then the motion will also be validated. If this happens, it will then go to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and following his approval, it will be published in the official gazette and come in to force.

Omer Suha Aldan, a member of parliament with the opposition CHP, criticised the motion, saying it will “encourage forced marriages” and “legalise marriage to rapists”, according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet.

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“If a 50 or 60-year-old is told to marry an 11-year-old after raping her, and then marries her years later, she will suffer the consequences,” he was quoted as saying on Friday.

“If you give him a pass by marriage, the young girl will live in a prison for her whole life,” Aldan said.

‘Distorting the issue’

The government angrily hit back at the criticism, calling the opposition claims a crude distortion of an attempt to grapple with the legal consequences of child marriage in the country.

“The issue is simple,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters after attending Friday prayers in the Turkish capital Ankara.

“There are people who marry early. They do not know the law, so they have children. The father goes to jail and the children is left alone with their mother. 

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“We determined that there are 3,000 families living like this.”

Under current law, the age of consent in Turkey is 18 years old, meaning individuals aged 17 or younger are not legally able to consent to sexual activity, and such activity may result in prosecution for statutory rape .

Turkey’s statutory rape law is violated when an individual has consensual sexual contact with a person under the age of 18, but sexual contact with minors between the ages of 15-17 can only be prosecuted upon complaint.

Yildirim said the motion will be a “one-off” pardon for people who violated the law “unknowingly”.

“Everyone made promises to solve this problem during their election campaigns. Everything is out in the open. This is not a pardon for rape.”

Yildirim emphasised that November 11 will be the endpoint of the motion’s coverage, adding that “If these types of marriages take place after this date, we will not tolerate it”.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag also rejected the criticism.

“It is a temporary regulation and it will be put into force only one time retrospectively,” he told reporters on Friday. 

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Bozdag denied that the motion would cover rape cases and said there is a current “reality” encouraging marriage between girls and boys under the age of 18 that the motion aimed to address, according to Hurriyet.

“This step is actually being taken to protect young people who are victims of underage marriage,” he said.

“Those who say rapists will benefit from this are distorting the situation. People who are convicted have definitive files that indicate clearly whether there is a rape or if it is a mistake of the parents,” he added. 

But Yildirim and Bozdag’s comments were not enough to calm the social media outrage, as the hashtag #Tecavuzmesrulastirilamaz (#Rape cannot be legitimised) was still the first trending topic on Twitter in Turkey late on Friday.

The latest controversy comes after Turkey’s constitutional court in July annulled a criminal code provision punishing as “sexual abuse” all sexual acts involving children under the age of 15.

Defenders of that law argued it made a distinction between cases of sexual acts involving a young teenager or a toddler.

In Turkey, child marriage occurs widely in all regions of the country, according to the UN’s Population Fund. Although marriage can be contracted by two persons of 17 years, according to the Turkey Civil Code, it is widely known that many marriages occur before that age.

While holding a religious marriage before the conclusion of the civil marriage is not legal, the practice is widespread in Turkey and most child marriages are unofficial religious marriages.

Since these marriages are not registered, there are no accurate statistical data on child marriages.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies