Around 3,000 offenders guilty of rape or sexual abuse in Turkey have avoided prison, simply by marrying their victims.
Addressing a parliamentary commission on sexual violence, Mustafa Demirdağ, the head of Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals, reported that some of these marriages involved girls as young as 5.
Highlighting the scale of the injustice, Demirdağ described an incident where a girl was raped by three men. After one of the men married her, the sentences for all three rapists were lifted.
“That type of marriage is not acceptable,” he said. “It is cruel to force someone to marry a person she does not want [to marry] and force her to spend the rest of her life with him.”
Turkey has come under scrutiny in recent years for providing inadequate protection against gender-based violence. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report revealed the extent of domestic abuse across the country, stating that 42% of women over the age of 15 in Turkey had experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a husband or partner. Last year alone, media reports suggest 300 women were killed by men in 2014.
Although the Turkish government introduced strong laws to combat domestic violence in 2007 and 2012, this legislation has not been adhered to or enforced routinely. Gaping holes in the laws introduced meant that they failed to cover the rights of divorced or unmarried women, leaving large groups still vulnerable to sexual violence. On International Women's Day 2016, Turkish women took to the streets in Istanbul and Ankara in a peaceful protest for women's rights, but were pushed back by riot police due to the country's tough laws on demonstrations.
"You see the power of women," one protester told Reuters. "We are here despite every obstacle and we will continue to fight for our cause."
The Supreme Court of Appeals’ announcement is another wake-up call that the country needs to do more to combat sexual violence and gender discrimination in its legal system.
And it’s not only Turkey. In Singapore, Yemen and India, marital rape is still not a crime, and across the world there are 46 countries that do not provide any legal protection against domestic violence.
However, there are signs of progress. After Global Citizens took action calling on leaders around the world to #LevelTheLaw, the Maltese government repealed a law that reduced the penalty for kidnapping if the kidnapper married their victim. As current Chair of the Commonwealth of Nations, Malta is working to urge other Commonwealth countries to overturn sexist laws.
Now it’s the Turkish government’s turn to tackle the impunity that lets rapists and sexual abusers walk free, and ensure that its laws live up to the task of protecting all its citizens.