Poverty is Fueling the High Rates of Child Marriage in Turkey

A scandal months in the making came to light in Istanbul, Turkey this January when 115 girls under the age of 18 had given birth in a hospital in the Küçükçeme province of Istanbul. The incident was promptly swept under the rug—until an unnamed hospital worker made a list of the girls, 38 of whom were under 15 and 39 of whom were Syrian refugees, and sent it to the district attorney’s office. (The worker was fired shortly afterwards.)

The reason this was a scandal is simple. All 115 of the girls who gave birth were child brides.

A girl holds up a drawing of a bride and groom during a discussion about child marriage with teenage Syrian refugee girls. The girl is dreaming of a building with a sign above it that says ‘school;’ the man is thinking of a building that says ‘home.’
(Russell Watkins for the Department for International Development / Creative Commons)

Child marriages are, by all means, illegal in Turkey—yet they usually go unprosecuted. The biggest reason for that are irregularities in laws regarding the issue of child marriages. According to the 124th statute of the Turkish Civil Code, it is illegal for girls or boys under the age of 18 to get married, but in special circumstances, a judge can allow children older than 16 to get married with parental permission. Child Protection Law defines people younger than 18 as undeveloped mentally, physically, morally, socially and emotionally, and thus considers them open to exploitation; Turkish Criminal Code, on the other hand, says that someone who has sexual intercourse with a child older than 15 can only be prosecuted if an official complaint is made, making it so that someone who marries a 16-year-old girl can avoid facing charges. These irregularities put girls, who often marry due to parental pressure, in a specifically vulnerable position—and if they want to press charges, they have to figure out inconsistent laws as well.

115 child brides may sound like an unusually high number, but for Turkey, it’s pretty ordinary. Turkey has one of the highest rates of child marriages in Europe: Almost 32 percent of girls there are married before the age 18, and one in every three married women in the nation are child brides. In 2015, former family and social politics minister Sema Ramazanoğlu counted 31,337 child brides in Turkey.

While child marriage is often framed as a traditional practice, in Turkey it is actually largely an economical one. According to nationwide statistics, the frequency of child brides is strongly linked to a family’s income, and child marriages are most frequent within families living in poverty. Families with a lower socio-economic level sometimes marry their daughters, who are sometimes younger than 15, to men in their late forties in exchange for dowries. Studies also show that the highest amount of child brides recorded are in the East and Southeast regions of Turkey—which are also the poorest regions.

This close relation to poverty also puts refugees in a particularly vulnerable position. Turkey is home to 2.5 million Syrian refugees, and camps can only hold up to 200,000 refugees at a time. Most refugees are living under poverty and dire circumstances in the Southeast region of Turkey, which has created a new and unusual market to grow there—one of “matchmakers” for child brides. These matchmakers arrange marriages between refugee families marrying their daughters, most of them younger than 18, to rich and much older men willing to pay them 400 liras for their service. Families go to matchmakers for a variety of reasons—they may need the money, they may think their daughters can be safer if married or they may simply be unable to take care of all their kids.

Being married as a child might be seen as a helpful option for families, but it ends up greatly derailing a child’s life. Child brides are left uniquely at risk for sexual and domestic abuse. They are usually unable to continue their education, leaving them largely trapped in the economic circumstances that forced them into marriage in the first place. And as they are mostly not knowledgeable about birth control methods, child brides end up getting pregnant early and are at a higher risk of complications during pregnancy and birth, as their bodies are not developed enough to support a pregnancy yet.

There is effort to end child marriages in Turkey—but, looking at the frequency of these marriages and their effects, it is obvious that there must be more. Laws regarding child marriages should be unified and clear cut, and economic incentives should be offered to families at risk of marrying their daughters early. Otherwise, an entire generation of girls remains at risk for losing control of their destinies—and the entire nation risks continuing a harrowing cycle of poverty that is leaving families bereft and broken.

Deniz Sahinturk is a 21-year-old aspiring journalist from Istanbul, Turkey, where she witnessed her country’s gradual descent into chaos. She travelled around Europe as much as she could and is now a rising junior in the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. She became a feminist when she was 16, and takes it as a turning point in her life. She is especially passionate about minority women’s rights and issues, and her current idols are Harriet Brown and Roxane Gay.

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