Turkey withdraws child rape bill after street protests

  • Published
Turkish women stage a protest in Ankara, Turkey, 19 NovemberImage source, AP
Image caption,
The capital Ankara has seen furious protests

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has withdrawn a bill that pardons men convicted of sex with underage girls if they have married them.

The bill, part of a package of amendments to the legal system, was sent back for further work just hours before a final vote in parliament.

It had sparked protests across Turkish society and was condemned abroad.

Critics said it would legitimise statutory rape and encourage the practice of taking child brides.

UN agencies had called on the government not to approve the bill, arguing that it would damage the country's ability to combat sexual abuse and child marriage.

But the government says the main aim is to exonerate men imprisoned for marrying an underage girl apparently with her or her family's consent.

The draft law will now be returned to a commission which will take into account the views of the opposition and civil society, Mr Yildirim said.

This would allow for "broad consensus" and to "give time for the opposition parties to develop their proposals".

A rare consensus: Analysis, Mark Lowen, BBC Turkey correspondent

This bill sparked a rare thing here: cross-party opposition. The AKP MPs who proposed it insisted it would not pardon rapists or sexual abusers and was simply intended to exonerate men who marry underage girls apparently with consent.

However, critics said that in patriarchal Turkey, a young girl would feel unable to give consent and so the bill would have legitimised rape and encouraged child brides. When conservative, usually pro-government, women spoke out against it - including the president's wife - the bill was doomed to failure.

Child marriage is a problem here. Former President Abdullah Gul famously married when he was 30 and his wife 15.

But women's groups say the solution is not controversial legislation such as this but real opportunities for girls. And they say the Islamist AKP has encouraged female subservience, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling childless women "deficient".

It's led to a huge rise in physical abuse of women, with the murder rate said to have increased by 1,400% between 2003 and 2010 - although some believe that number is partly due to more cases being reported than ever before.

Turkey's legal age of consent is 18 but the practice of underage weddings in religious ceremonies remains widespread.

Opposition parties heavily criticised the bill which had been approved in an initial parliamentary reading on Thursday.

The ruling AK Party dominates parliament in Ankara.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
It is a rare setback for Prime Minister Yildirim (waving) and the AKP

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag had defended the legislation, saying: "The bill will certainly not bring amnesty to rapists.... This is a step taken to solve a problem in some parts of our country."

In July, Turkey's constitutional court annulled part of the criminal code which classified all sexual acts with children under 15 as sexual abuse.

Turkish child brides

  • 440,000 girls under the age of 18 have become mothers since 2002, 15,937 of them below the age of 15
  • Child abuse cases have tripled in the past 10 years, during which time 438,000 underage girls have been married

Source: Turkish justice ministry

Elif Shafak, one of Turkey's best-selling novelists, explained the concern over the bill.

"One of the main weaknesses of this draft is that word, consent," she told the BBC.

"What does that mean? We're talking about children here. So if the rapist negotiates with the family, if he bribes or threatens the family, the family can easily withdraw, you know, their complaint and they can say OK there was a consent and there was no force involved."

But Ravza Kavakci Kan, an AKP MP, said the bill had been misunderstood.

'This is a kid': Turkish social media reaction compiled by BBC Monitoring

There is a palpable sense of relief among opponents of the bill on Turkey's social media. The hashtag #Thisisakid has been trending, with some posting pictures of children smiling and playing.

"As long as there is solidarity among women, we are powerful," said one tweet. "This is it!" said another. "Withdrawing the bill has eased the public's conscience. We need to be logical, not stubborn."

Others point out that the government only backed down because President Erdogan had asked for parliamentary consensus over the bill. Addressing the government, a user said: "You should have listened to the people, and not wait for the president to interfere."

But the debate is not over as some want the bill to be dropped entirely. "What does it mean it is withdrawn?" asked one tweeter. "It should not be brought back to parliament again."

"The fight should continue until this law is shelved indefinitely," another person tweeted. "They should apologise to all women and children."

"It is about giving normality to young women who have been married underage due to cultural norms, other norms, and now find themselves with their children suffering because their husbands are in prison," she told the BBC's Newsday programme.

"One of the examples is when the woman is 15 and the man is 17, they get married, they're both underage, a few years later after they've had children, or when they go to register their babies, or when they go to the doctor, the doctors or officials have to report this case if it is an underage marriage, so now they are 24, 25 and all of a sudden their husbands are in prison."