One-third of marriages in Turkey involve child brides, despite a national law that says a judge must approve the union if it involves someone younger than 17, advocates said.
Stronger application of the law is needed to turn back the practice, which the local groups and the United Nations say places the child bride’s health and education opportunities at risk.
A recent study by Hacetteppe University found that 28 percent of Turkish women who have been married were younger than 18.
“If we add to this the number of women who do not have any legal proof of marriage [such as religious marriage, in other words forced to live with someone and call it ‘marriage’], one in every three women in Turkey is a ‘child bride’,” said Selen Doğan, editor-in-chief of Flying Broom, an Ankara-based women’s rights organisation.
To help raise awareness, the UN and the Romanian Cultural Institute are teaming to host a forum in Istanbul Thursday (October 11th) with the goal of getting the attention of government and education officials.
Also, Thursday will mark the first UN International Day of the Girl Child, an observance planned to spotlight the struggles young girls around the world face and seek to provide them with better opportunities. This year’s theme is centered on child marriages.
According to UN and CARE statistics, about one-third of women aged 20 to 24 in the developing world are married younger than 18.
Experts agree that the child-bride issue is not necessarily a legal one in Turkey. The law states that couples can be married at 17 with the consent of the court.
“There must be strong law enforcement,” said Nilüfer Narlı, professor of political sociology at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University. “The legal marriage age and compulsory education law must be honored.”
But enforcement is difficult when many underage marriages are not registered with the state, observers said.
Werner Haug, director of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia regional office, agreed that unlisted marriages are common throughout the region.
“[Child marriage] is certainly unreported across the region as the marriages themselves occur in community ceremonies but are not officially registered with the state,” he said.
The issue of child marriage goes beyond the inability for a child to consent to a marriage.
Girls who are married at a young age are almost always forced to leave school, leaving them with fewer opportunities to lift themselves and their families out of poverty in the future due to an incomplete education, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 180 organisations.
Also, child brides are often more prone to health issues due to early sexual activity and child bearing. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die during child birth than women in their 20s, while girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die, UNICEF research shows.
Unwanted pregnancies are often a consequence of early marriage, and children giving birth not only places their own lives at risk, but the infant’s life as well. UNICEF data shows that children of child brides are 60 percent more likely to die before their first birthday.
Girls who are married as children are also significantly more likely to face domestic violence, advocates said.
In Turkey, “our field research shows that nearly 80 percent of women who were forced into marriages at a young age are subject to domestic violence,” Doğan said.
While a child bride is most often married off because her family cannot financially afford to care for her, issues of tradition and honor also come into play, especially in Turkey.
“The families want to marry girls in order to avoid any potential problem of having shade on the girl’s reputation,” Narlı said.
Flying Broom’s field research, conducted in 54 Turkish municipalities, also found that cultural honour also plays a role in the practice “since marriage is seen to be to sole method of keeping a woman’s body under control.”
While the trend is slowly declining in some parts of society, UNICEF reports that according to data collected from 47 countries, the rise in median age of first marriage is mainly concentrated in families with higher incomes. The UN said instances of child marriage have increased in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region during the last 20 years.
Haug attributed the increase in Central Asia to socio-economic turmoil and ethnic conflicts that ensued after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“In Southeastern Europe, conflict has also exacerbated the issue,” Haug said. “There, the reasserting of traditions as a form of distinguishing separate ethnic and religious identities led to an increase in child marriage.”
Local efforts are taking place within Turkey to study the situation and take action to reduce the trend. Flying Broom’s comprehensive research, conducted with the help of the UN Population Fund, is seen as a key step.
The UN passed a resolution in December 2011 declaring each October 11th as the International Day of the Girl Child.