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Turkey must reject child marriage bill

by Jenna Norman and Maryam Mohsin | Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage
Friday, 25 November 2016 11:58 GMT

Iraqi Christian refugee children play in a school in Istanbul in this 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Though the legal age of marriage in Turkey is 17, at least 15% of girls there are married before their 18th birthday

Today marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The events that took place in Turkey this week surrounding a controversial bill are a timely reminder of how fragile progress towards achieving this global commitment can be, as well as the power civil society has to prevent regression.

In Turkey, the government had tabled a bill which proposed that men previously convicted of child sexual assault could be exonerated if they married the girl they had assaulted. On Tuesday, that bill was recalled to the committee stage. The government took that step thanks to pressure from civil society organisations, including many Turkish Girls Not Brides members; public protests, as well as international condemnation.

The Turkish government had justified the proposed legislation on the grounds that it would preserve the family unit. Men who were currently in jail who could prove they had married underage girls without force and with consent, would be released, thereby keeping the family together. However, opponents argued that this would legitimise sexual assault and child marriage.

The recall of the bill is an important step, but unless it is dropped entirely there is a risk that the government would be sending mixed messages about the acceptability of child marriage. That, in a country which already has the highest prevalence of child marriage in Europe.

The future of the bill is currently uncertain. Now back at the committee stage, there will be a cross-party debate and consultations with civil society organisations. However, Turkey’s justice minister has stated that unless political parties achieve a broad consensus, the bill will be dropped. Civil society organisations remain adamant that underage girls cannot meaningfully consent to marriage; and that the bill would encourage child marriage if parental consent were given, resulting in the pardoning of child sexual abusers.

Though the legal age of marriage in Turkey is 17, at least 15% of girls there are married before their 18th birthday. This figure could be even higher as marriages are often unregistered and take place during unofficial religious ceremonies.

Across the country, child marriage continues to be maintained by patriarchal values, economic uncertainties, and a poor birth registration system. The proposed bill would have further aggravated this problem by creating an environment of impunity for perpetrators of sexual abuse and child marriage. 

The recall of the bill herald’s cautious optimism, but it is far from being the end of the story. It is crucial that organisations working towards ending child marriage in Turkey are consulted during any revision of the bill, or indeed any other legislation which has an impact on the lives of girls and women effected by child marriage. Steps also need to be taken to ensure the minimum legal age of marriage, 17 years, is enforced across the country.

In addition, further investigation is needed to establish the real number of girls married underage, and unofficial child marriages must be prevented in collaboration with communities and local authorities. Finally, perpetrators of child marriages must not be allowed to escape justice by having their well-being placed before that of women and girls who have already suffered the consequences of child marriage.

Jenna Norman and Maryam Mohsin are part of Girls Not Brides' communication team.