A total of 13,740 underage marriages took place in Turkey in 2020, according to a report published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality on Friday, the Stockholm Center for Freedom reported.
The report, which was prepared for the occasion of April 23, National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, said 95 percent of the minors were girls. According to the Duvar news website the numbers could be much higher as most minors are married off in religious ceremonies and their marriages were not officially registered.
Although the legal age of marriage is 18 in Turkey, some minors can marry with parental consent at the age of 17. In the event there is a “compelling reason,” some minors are granted permission for marriage at 16.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), underage marriages are still a controversial issue in Turkey as it prevents proper education for girls and makes them vulnerable to violence and poverty.
However, in a controversial move the Turkish government proposed a bill that allowed men accused of having sex with underage girls to avoid punishment if they married their victims. According to the bill, if a marriage took place, charges against the rapist would be dropped. As many as 4,000 men would have benefited from this bill had it passed.
The proposed bill sparked outrage among activists, who argued that the government was trying to whitewash rape by framing it as a family union. In a joint statement signed by 197 women’s organizations, they said minors as young as 12 could be forced to marry men nearly twice their age.
“Proponents of the bill say minors who married older men and had children with them would be victims because their husbands were sent to prison for statutory rape,” they said. “The argument is that these young girls have to raise the children alone. However, releasing the men for the sake of keeping the family union intact does not eliminate the fact that there was clear abuse of a minor.”
The opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said the bill would legitimize child marriage and statutory rape and pave the way for child abuse and sexual exploitation.
United Nations agencies also warned the bill would generate a landscape of impunity for child abuse and leave victims vulnerable to experiencing additional mistreatment from their assailants.
While the legal age of consent is 18 in Turkey, a 2018 government report on child marriage estimates a total of 482,908 girls were married in the last decade.