Child abuse has a lot to do with Turkey’s society and politics

Hospitals in Turkey are required to inform authorities of pregnancies involving girls under the age of 18.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Public outcry. Protesters show their painted hands and raise banners that read “Keep your hands off from a child’s body” (L) and “Don’t protect the rapists” (R) during a protest in front of the Turkish Parliament in Ankara. (Reuters)
Public outcry. Protesters show their painted hands and raise banners that read “Keep your hands off from a child’s body” (L) and “Don’t protect the rapists” (R) during a protest in front of the Turkish Parliament in Ankara. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - A recently revealed scandal about an Istanbul hospital allegedly covering up dozens of pregnancies of underage girls reignited discussions in Turkey about child marriages and sexual abuse of children, with critics accusing the government of failing to protect society’s most vulnerable members.

The scandal, first reported January 17 by the Hurriyet newspaper, details how the Kanuni Sultan Suleyman Training and Research Hospital in the Kucukcekmece district treated 115 pregnant underage girls, 39 of whom were Syrian nationals, in the first five months of 2017. The reports came out after a psychologist working at the hospital contacted the Kucukcekmece prosecutor’s office. Women’s and children’s rights activists said the case was just the tip of the iceberg.

The Turkish government has launched an investigation into the alleged cover-up by hospital staff. “If anyone is responsible, they will be brought to justice,” said Turkish Health Minister Ahmet Demircan. The Kucukcekmece prosecutor’s office announced that investigations into two civil servants had been initiated and both the Turkish health and family ministries have started probes into the case.

However, critics said the problem of widespread child abuse in Turkey points to deeper, structural problems. Selen Dogan of the women’s rights advocacy group Ucan Supurge Kadin Iletisim ve Arastirma Dernegi (Flying Broom Woman’s Communication and Research Association), said Turkish authorities lacked the political will, a sustainable or efficient strategy and the necessary expertise to combat child abuse. The government has frequently been defensive when confronted with cases of abuse and violence against women and children.

“They’d rather blame the media for stirring up criticism while arguing that they were already working on the issue. They try to cover it up, reject all responsibility, keep the problem silent,” Dogan said. “That cannot be the stance of a public institution. By trying to cover up the problem, they become complicit in the crime.”

Hospitals in Turkey are required to inform authorities of pregnancies involving girls under the age of 18. If they are under the age of 15, the cases are automatically treated as sexual abuse. In all other cases, however, Turkish law leaves it to health staff to decide if the pregnant girl had been subject to threats, violence or other forms of coercion. Only then or if the girl or her legal guardian decides will the police be notified of the underage pregnancy.

Legal experts warned that approach protected the perpetrators rather than the victims.

“There are many reasons why a victim of abuse would not dare to speak up or why the legal guardians of the child would want to keep a possible crime silent,” said Gulseren Yoleri, a human rights lawyer who heads the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association (IHD). “This is why the legal differentiation between children under 15 and children between the ages of 15 and 18 urgently needs to be changed.”

In the Kucukcekmece hospital scandal, 38 children were under the age of 15 when they conceived, Hurriyet reported. “According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Turkey has ratified, everyone under the age of 18 is a child,” Yoleri said.

Adding to the problem, she said, was the issue of child marriage, which is seen as normal in Turkey. It is ignored, or even facilitated, both by public institutions and civil law. Research by the Women’s Research Centre at Ankara’s Gazi University in 2015 showed how child marriages in Turkey were often used to cover up sexual abuse. In Turkey, the minimum age for marriage is 17 for both men and women but exceptions can be made with the consent of legal guardians.

Turkey last November implemented a controversial law that allows state-registered religious scholars to conduct civil marriage ceremonies, a proposal slammed by critics for facilitating child marriages and the sexual abuse of underage girls.

Turkish women’s rights groups said that many child brides in Turkey come from Syrian families who entered the country as refugees and are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

In January, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, caused public outcry after saying that girls as young as 9 could marry under Islamic law. The institution later said that it was only referring to points of Islamic law and that it did not endorse early marriages.

Opposition politicians and activists in Turkey have long decried the instrumentalisation of religion in politics by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and warned that the country was regressing in many areas, such as education and women’s rights.

“This conservative turn did not happen overnight,” said Dogan, “but there is one thing we need to remember: We talk about child abuse, about the murder of women, about online violence, about war and violent conflict. What we have to ask ourselves is: ‘What we are protecting with this conservatism?’ The people have to ask themselves about the consequences of their choices.”

Dozens of women’s and children’s rights organisations around the country were shut down after the state issued an emergency decree following the failed military coup of July 15, 2016. Human rights defenders were detained, with some still in pretrial detention.

“This has had an additional detrimental effect on our work,” said Yoleri. “These NGOs and associations not only help to lobby against rights abuses and create public awareness but they also collect the necessary data and have the expertise to inform politicians, government offices and therefore are able to achieve important policy changes. The closures have left a big hole in that area.”