Sexual abuse against children in Turkey increased by 700% in the 10 years to 2017, according to the Diyarbakir Bar Association. 440,000 children under the age of 18 have given birth since 2002, according to Turkey's Human Rights Association. (Image source: iStock)
Turkey's Human Rights Association (IHD) has issued a chilling report about children's rights abuses in Turkey. According to it, "since 2002, under the AKP [Justice and Development Party] rule, 440,000 children under the age of 18 have given birth."
"One in every four marriage in Turkey is a child marriage," said Selen Doğan, a member of Ankara-based Flying Broom Women's Communication and Research Association.
According to the Turkish Civil Code, men and women cannot marry before they turn 18.
"There are only a few exceptions that allow someone to marry before turning 18. A 17-year-old person may be granted permission to be married with the consent of his/her parents or legal guardian; and a 16-year-old person may be granted permission to be married by a court decision and with the consent of his/her parents or legal guardian."
Nonetheless, Zelal Coşkun, a member of the Children's Rights Commission of the IHD, said that child marriages have been on the rise in recent years:
"According to the data of TÜİK [Turkish Statistical Institute], in the last 10 years, 482,908 [underage] girls have been married off with the permission of the state. In the last six years, 142,298 have become mothers and most got married in religious [Islamic] ceremonies."
These abusive acts take place in many parts of the world, but in Muslim societies the practice of underage marriages is warmly tolerated by many; in some instances, the perpetrators are protected by the authorities. That Islamic scriptures encourage early marriages -- for girls as young as nine -- also seems to be used to normalize abusive acts, including child marriages and underage mothers. Sadly, the practice of child marriages, a long-lasting tradition in Muslim communities, has a theological basis. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, married Aisha when she was six and consummated his marriage with her when she was nine. He was 54 years old. The Koran also advocates the practice.
"A List of Shame That Will Shatter Turkey," is the title of a report published by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, which includes the names of 115 underage girls who gave birth at just one Istanbul hospital, Kanuni Sultan Süleyman Education and Research Hospital, during just five months in 2017.
Worse, the scandal was covered up by the administration of the hospital. They failed to inform either the police or judicial officials -- even though they are obligated to do so by law and regulations when they discover a minor is pregnant or has been subjected to sexual abuse.
Instead, the social worker who exposed the scandal, Iclal Nergiz, has been persecuted by the hospital and other authorities. An investigation has been launched against her, her place of work has been changed twice and she has been exposed to heavy pressure and harassment. "Ever since the incident was exposed, nothing has changed except for my punishment [by the hospital]," Nergiz said in one interview.
"The hospital officials think that I have betrayed the country and that I have destroyed the image of the hospital! I am exposed to a policy of oppression and intimidation." Nergiz said in another interview.
The scandal came to light when Nergiz noticed that the files of a 17-year-old pregnant girl and the notification that had to be submitted to the police were both missing from the hospital records. She then sought help from the hospital administration and prosecutors.
"I noticed that a lot of pregnant adolescents, 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, 18-year-olds, came to the hospital. Some were pregnant with their second child. Almost all had come to our hospital previously... But they were not reported to anyone for years.
"...These children are said to be married with an imam marriage. I would not call that a marriage. What matters is official marriage. And these kids are not officially married... I saw a 16-year-old Syrian kid who was pregnant with her second child. She gave birth to her first child when she was 12. I cannot forget her."
Nergiz also says:
"About 250 pregnant girls under age 18 were treated at the hospital over a period of five months and nine days. I realized the cases of 115 of these girls were not reported to police. Nor were they recorded in the protocols of the hospital police.
"...Every year, around 450 to 500 pregnant girls are taken to this hospital... There is not a single door I did not knock on at the hospital concerning these 115 children. But I ended up being marginalized."
According to Turkish law, people below the age of 18 are regarded as children. However, Nergiz says:
"... according to the hospital administration and the governor, they are not [children]... They do not report pregnant minors to anywhere. Because they do not care. That is why, the situation is so dire. To them, it is just normal. When I talk about 115 pregnant children, it is an optimistic number. There are doctors who do not even report child pregnancies to the social services unit. So, the real number is so much higher."
The first court hearing that involved those who did not inform the judiciary about the scandal took place on June 25.
Akif Akça, the deputy head physician, and Nazlıcan Dilber, a social services expert, who are on trial for covering up child pregnancies, testified. They both rejected accusations that the presence of pregnant girls in the hospital was not reported to authorities: "Procedures were carried out according to the instructions of the Ministry of Health and there has been no negligence."
At the conclusion of the first hearing, the court lifted the ban on international travel that had been imposed on Akça and Dilber. They are now free to leave Turkey. The court also informed the two that they are not required to attend future hearings in the case.
A totally different ruling, however, was issued concerning Nergiz, who exposed the scandal. Although she did not appear at the first court hearing, as she is the one who exposed the scandal and lodged a complaint with prosecutors, the judge decided that Nergiz must attend the next hearing.
The reality she helped expose in that hospital is the reality of the entire country, Nergiz said. "The situation is the same all across Turkey. Moreover, what was exposed in that hospital is just the tip of the iceberg."
How many of these girls were already married when they arrived at the hospital to give birth and at what age did they get married? Or were they sexually abused out of wedlock? How many were later forced to marry their abusers? What happened to their babies? How many other children in Turkey are victims of similar abuses? It seems these questions will remain unanswered.
What is known is that child marriages, child rape, girls who become mothers although they themselves are still children, and other types of child sexual abuse are increasingly commonplace in Turkey.
"Turkey is the country that has the highest number of child marriages in Europe," stated a 2016 report by the Prevention of Violence and Rehabilitation Organization and the Crime and Violence Practice and Research Center by Istanbul's Acıbadem University. "But as religious [imam] marriages are widespread, it has not been possible to detect the real number of child marriages in Turkey." The report also detailed the terrible medical, psychological and social effects of child pregnancies on both underage mothers and their babies.
Sexual abuse against children in Turkey increased by 700% in the 10 years to 2017, according to the Diyarbakir Bar Association.
"According to the 2015 Turkey report by the organization ECPAT (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking), children are the group that is exposed to sexual violence the most in Turkey," Zelal Coşkun, a member of the Children's Rights Commission of the IHD, said at a symposium in Istanbul.
Coşkun emphasized that due to early marriages, many girls remain uneducated and unemployed:
"In Turkey, the net schooling rates of women are below those of men at all levels except for distance education. The number of girls who continue middle school after primary school are getting increasingly lower.
"According to the data of the Ministry of National Education, 97.4% of those who cannot continue their education due to child marriages and engagements are girls."
Although the legal system of Turkey is not yet based on Islamic sharia law, Islamic teachings and traditions still largely shape the thinking and behavior of many people -- including their views of child marriage and child abuse. The greatest victims of the Islamization of societies still seem to be girls and women.
Uzay Bulut, a journalist from Turkey, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. She is currently based in Washington D.C.