33% of Turkish marriages involve underage brides – women's rights advocate

© Murad Sezer
Almost one-third of all marriages in Turkey involve child brides, according to a women's rights advocate, who spoke at a conference tackling the issue. She said the figure is likely too low, as many marriages to underage girls aren't officially registered.

“There are 181,036 child brides in our country, unfortunately...nearly 20,000 parents filed applications to marry off their under-16 girls in 2012,” Nuriye Kadan, an Izmir Bar Association central executive board member and women’s rights advocate said during the conference on Sunday, citing data from Turkey Population and Health Research, the Hurriyet Daily reports. The conference was organized by Gediz University Law School and Women and Family Research Center.

Although the number of child brides cited by Kadan sounds shocking, she stressed that the actual number is likely far higher, because many child marriages are performed with only the presence of an imam, and are not officially registered with the government.

Kadan stressed that “child marriages are a major violation of children’s rights,” adding that Turkey's patriarchal and traditional mindset has led many to legitimize the processes that force young girls into marriage.

She also noted that “some 97.4 percent of the students who do not further their education for marital reasons are female,” and that problems resulting from pregnancy were common reasons for the deaths of girls aged 15-19.

Also speaking at the conference was former state minister Isilay Saygin, who said during the opening ceremony that “we must all share the burden of responsibility to fight child marriages. We must wage a comprehensive campaign to create awareness of this.” He added that child marriages should be prevented through education.

Yasar University law professor Mustafa Ruhan Erdem stressed that child marriage is not defined as a criminal act in Turkey. Girls under 16 are allowed to marry in Turkey with Sharia Court permission.

“Marriage should be based on free will according to international law. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence Turkey signed in 2011, mandates the enactment of laws which regard to intentional acts forcing any adult or child into marriage as a ‘crime.’ Forced marriage should not be left unpunished,” he said, as quoted by the Hurriyet Daily News.

According to the non-profit organization Girls Not Brides, the influx of refugees from Syria and other countries in the region has increased the number of underage marriages in Turkey.

A 2014 UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) survey revealed that the average age of marriage for Syrian refugee girls in Turkey is between 13 and 20 years, with many respondents saying that if they were financially stable, they would not have married their daughters off at such a young age.