In rape cases, there is a victim and there is an aggressor. For some members of the Turkish ruling party however, this distinction doesn’t appear to matter. The government is currently attempting to progress a horrific “Marry-Your Rapist” law as part of a controversial new “judicial package” – as Berfu Şeker and Ezel Buse from the Turkish NGO Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways explained to STAND in a recent interview. This Bill would allow rapists to escape any judicial penalty through marrying their under-aged victims if the age difference between them is less than ten years (for this reason, the legislation is also being called a “child rape law”). Turkey’s current civil code views child marriages as illegal.
This regressive legal step is largely inspired (according to Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum) by Article 357 of the 1810 French criminal law, written under Napoleon, which states that if a girl is kidnapped and married to her ‘seducer’, he can only be prosecuted if the family declares the marriage void. Such laws consider rape not as a crime that should be punished in its own right, but as an act which is disrespectful to religious or moral laws. Besides increasing the risk of child abuse, passing this law could mean Turkey will witness similar situations to those seen in Morocco before it repealed Article 475 of its Penal Code. In Morocco, the suicide of Amina Filali, a 16-year-old girl who killed herself with rat poison after being forced to marry her rapist, shocked the country and acted as a catalyst for change.
Child marriage is extremely damaging and, according to UNICEF, “often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupts schooling, limits the girl’s opportunities and increases her risk of experiencing domestic violence”. Approximately 15 million adolescent girls worldwide have experienced forced sex at some point in their lifetime (UNICEF). Under “marry your rapist” laws, victims, including children and teenagers, are considered to have a certain degree of responsibility for having been raped, even when they have not reached the legal age of consent (18 years of age). This normalisation and downplaying of rape often prevents the victims from seeking professional help after enduring such trauma, with victims facing pressure from family members in some cases. General Recommendation 35, adopted in 2017, of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEDAW) has called on states to combat social attitudes which falsely “make women responsible for their own safety and for the violence they suffer.” Sadly, these laws are not that uncommon, and in about ten countries worldwide rapists can avoid prosecution if the victim is underage or ‘forgives’ the rapist.
In December 2019, some female members of the Turkish parliament protested the lack of action on penalizing and prosecuting violence against women by Turkish society, and specifically by the male-dominated political elite. They sang “Un Violador en Tu Camino” (’A rapist in your path’), the Chilean protest song which has been adopted by women worldwide to denounce the role various state actors (judges, the police, and other decision-makers) play in enabling a system that perpetuates rape and rape culture. By forcing women and children to marry their rapists, Turkey’s legislation is just one of many global examples of how women’s protection is not being taken seriously by governments.
Kate Dannies, assistant professor of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University, writing for The Washington Post, highlights how this bill is part of Turkey’s general aim of encouraging population growth. “As soon a woman is married, [the sooner] she can have children”, explains Berfu Şeker from WWHR – New Ways. Turkey’s ruling party uses excuses like religion and conservatism in an attempt to erase women as individual subjects and as economic and social actors, in order to constrain them to the role of mothers, she explains.
As Turkey struggles with a severe economic crisis, the government is attempting to limit the increasing number of women joining the labour force and to advance a more traditional and nuclear vision of the family. While women are already disadvantaged within Turkish society, this shift would make them even more dependent on their husbands with even fewer opportunities to be financially independent – yet another regressive step and a major attack on gender equality.
Even if Turkish society and the international community manages to rally against attempts to pass the bill, another major issue Turkey faces is the lack of efficient and trustworthy democratic institutions and the absence of press freedom. Since the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum, the parliament has lost almost all of its legislative power. WWHR – New Ways shared its concerns with STAND that, even if the parliament is blocked by protestors, bills can be passed “behind closed doors in the middle of the night” by the ruling party, allowing it to impose “its hidden agenda” on the Turkish population.
The patriarchal attitudes which “Marry-your-rapist” laws are built around must be combated, and the line between victims and their aggressors should not become blurred. For Turkish women and their allies, the fightback might take the form of direct protest, or by becoming a member of a women’s rights organisation working on these issues; it might happen in the ballot box, or through difficult discussions with family and community members, or even through a tweet. Even small acts of protest can spark change – but the message is clear – change needs to come!
Photo from Piqsels
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