Leyla Tan was 14 years old when she fell in love with a 17-year-old boy from her village. “We didn’t want to wait, so we eloped,” she recalls. In a small village in Turkey’s rural Sivas province, they had a traditional wedding ceremony. Family and friends attended. The next year, she gave birth to a child.
Two years later, Leyla’s doctor noticed something strange during a routine visit. The girl was 16, and had a two-year-old child – which made her 14 when the child was conceived. The doctor called the police, who arrested Leyla’s husband and charged him with sexual abuse of a minor.
Now, she says he is wrongfully imprisoned. “I love my husband and I know he loves me. This ‘justice’ is ruining my family,” Leyla says now. “I’m suffering with my kids and I am not the only one.”
She says that she didn’t know that it was illegal to be married at such a young age.
In villages like the one where Leyla grew up, it’s common for teenagers to get married in religious ceremonies such as these. Many people don’t even register their marriages officially until years later. Data from UNICEF estimate that one per cent of girls in Turkey get married before 15, and one in six before they’ve reached the legal age of 18 – a higher rate than in any European country.
There isn’t any place in the world where teens don’t skirt the rules to have sex. In Leyla’s case, she was able to start a family with someone she loved, even if she was too young by some cultural standards.
But stories of those who marry young are not always love stories.
When Nurcihan was 11 years old, a 22-year-old man kidnapped her from her home in the coastal city of Adana. While police searched for her, the man raped her repeatedly over the course of several days.
Police found Nurcihan a week later, and the man was arrested – but while he was in prison, he managed to threaten the girl’s family. He coerced them into changing their statement to the police, saying that the relationship was consensual. The court released him, and Nurcihan was forced by her family to marry the man who had raped her.
“I never stopped crying. Every day I was married was a rape. I threw up every day,” Nurcihan said. Now 22 years old and free, she was only able to escape her detestable situation when her husband was arrested and jailed for a separate offence. But the experience scarred her for life.
Leyla and Nurcihan are but two out of thousands of women whose stories exemplify the controversy that erupted when a bill was put forward in the Turkish parliament on November 17.
The draft bill proposed suspending convictions for sexual abuse, “in the event that the perpetrator and the victim get married.”
Under the storm of criticism that followed, lawmakers scrapped the proposal.
“We have heard the criticisms and we have withdrawn the bill,” Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Tuesday.
Yet the uproar is only one more episode in what has continued to be a fierce debate in Turkey, in which both sides have failed to hear one another’s concerns.
It’s part of a debate around a confusing and polarised issue in Turkey which doesn’t have any easy answers.
So what was the bill about?
The text of the proposal as presented in parliament on November 17 reads:
Should a sexual abuse case that has been committed before November 16, 2016 without the use of force, threats, deception or any other reason affecting free will;
In the event that the perpetrator and the victim get married, the announcement of the sentence will be delayed;
Should there already be a verdict, the execution of the sentence will be delayed.
If during the statute of limitations the marriage should end through a fault of the perpetrator the sentence will be announced or the execution of the sentence will be continued.
As per this subsection, should a decision be made to delay the announcement or execution of the sentence, the civil lawsuit against those who have encouraged and/or abetted the crime will be abated and the execution will be cancelled.
These are women who got married when they were below the legal age in a religious ceremony unrecognised by the Turkish state. Their husbands are currently in jail because of a law that says their relationship was sexual abuse. They say their husbands are wrongfully imprisoned.
“These people are not rapists,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said.
“We have an estimated 3,000 citizens in jail because of this law,” ministers told reporters in a press conference.
The number 3,000 comes from a multi-party inquiry that studied a wide range of issues affecting children, divorce and family integrity.
The 445-page report compiled testimonies and complaints from thousands of families. They found 3,000 instances where couples married in legally unrecognised religious ceremonies had been separated because the husband is in prison after being convicted of sexual abuse.
Dilara Turhan, another woman who filed a complaint with the authorities, told Anadolu Agency before the proposal was withdrawn: “We are not defending rapists. We are fighting for our husbands. This bill is our only hope.”
Those who might have had their convictions for sexual abuse overturned may have included one that reached the Supreme Constitutional Court in May 2016. A 14-year-old boy was jailed after conceiving a child with a girl who was also 14.
He was sentenced under a section of the criminal code, TCK 103/1, which criminalised any sexual relations with a person under the age of 15.
When lawyers challenged, the appeals court in Bafra ruled that because the perpetrator and the victim were the same age, the boy’s sentence was inconsistent with the constitutional principle of “incremental punishment,” which says that sentences should be proportional according to the circumstances.
However, the commission did not investigate each of those 3,000 cases; it only tallied the number. So it's difficult to know how many fit the bill.
Their marriages were illegal, but should they count as sexual abuse under the law? It’s this debate over traditional practices in Turkey which is at the centre of the controversy that the proposed law found itself in.
The legal age for marriage in Turkey is 18, or 17 with the consent of both sets of parents.
The commission made recommendations that the age of legal consent must remain 15. In cases where two people marry under 15, instead of imprisonment, the commission proposed a five-year period in which lawyers, psychologists, and other experts would determine the relationship was not abusive.
“These objections are not about the law itself but how the law is applied and what the consequences could be,” said Derya Yanik, the Beyoglu Municipal Counselor in Istanbul in an interview with TRT World.
The most glaring flaw in the proposed bill was its vague language. Though its proposers claimed it was addressed at cases such as Leyla’s, it didn’t include any specifications on age – creating concerns that it left the door open to potential exploitation.
Furthermore, its language stating convictions would be overturned “in the event that the perpetrator and the victim get married” left the rejected bill open to interpretation as to whether it would pardon abuse in the context of a marriage, or if an abuser could be forgiven for crimes if they married the victim afterwards.
“One of the most important dilemmas of the proposed bill is the difficulty in establishing if rape, force or any other type of coercion took place,” read a statement from the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), which is chaired by the president’s daughter Sumeyye Erdogan.
Another section of the bill states that if the marriage ends “through a fault of the perpetrator,” then the charges will stand – a situation which would only go into effect if a husband admits the divorce was his fault. In situations where a marriage has become abusive, “this section of the draft,” Yanik said, “forces the victim to remain married.”
In Nurcihan’s case from 1998, that law – instead of protecting her – protected her rapist.
Outrage against the draft bill was widespread, including from Turkish women’s rights groups and feminist organisations.
The bill would create “a perception of impunity in favour of perpetrators,” a statement by UN children’s and women’s agencies said, and would create “risk for further victimisation of the child if she marries the perpetrator of the sexual abuse.”
Although the new proposal contains a clause explicitly precluding rape, violence or coercion from pardon, concerns remain about how the provision would be enforced. Its core presumption that a marriage would absolve sexual abuse gave rise to concerns that it would give an official endorsement to early marriages where young girls are unprepared to make such life decisions.
“Anyone under 18 is a child, and children can’t give consent to sex, period,” Sehlem Kacar, an activist who works with the Association Against Sexual Violence told TRT World.
“Even if there is no force or any other type of coercion in the act,” KADEM’s statement asked, “how is it possible to determine ‘free will' of an underage girl?”
On November 22, the bill that sparked so much controversy was withdrawn.
But the thorny issue of teen sex and underage marriage persists. The issue of clashing traditional practices and legal norms around child marriage also persists.
“Unfortunately, early marriages continue to occur, even if we don’t support it,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters last week in Istanbul.
“These couples have formed families, and then the male goes to jail, and a mother is left alone with a baby in her hands,” Yildirim said.
A decision still needs to be reached about how Law 103/1 will be amended to apply to underage couples.
Parliament will need to reach a consensus on how to address the issue before January 13, 2017, when the cancellation goes into effect.
“The law TCK 103/1 should clearly state that consent of the minors under 15 cannot be accepted,” read a joint statement signed by over 130 women’s rights organisations.
“Even when social practices conflict with the law, the state’s responsibility is to prevent child marriages. The state should be teaching children what the law is, and supporting the victims with financial aid. I don’t think any revision on the proposed bill could solve these problems,” Kacar continued.
For now, those convicted of sexual abuse will remain in prison. Nurcihan and women like her can start a new life, protected from those who would victimise them.
But for some, like Zeynep Duman, “this is enough.” She married at 14, and six years later her husband was charged, leaving her to support two children alone.
“I don’t want my husband to stay in a jail cell with real rapists,” said Zeynep, now 22.
“Those,” she said, “I want to be hanged.”