Istanbul (AsiaNews) - Economic growth and development in modern Turkey have not affected the ancient practice of arranged marriages between teenage girls and older men.
According to the Interior Ministry, 134,629 persons under 18 were married off in Turkey in the last three years. Of these, 128,866 were girls, a rate 20 times higher than that of boys.
Speaking to al-Monitor, Gulten Kaya, head of the Female Lawyers Commission of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, warned that "there is an increase of 94 per cent in application to courts by families to . . . get marriage permits".
Underage marriages have a strong impact on teenagers and are often linked to poverty, lack of education or to religion.
A recent study by Erhan Tunc, professor at Gaziantep University, looked at marriages with minors in various regions of Turkey. Tunc's team found that 82 per cent of child brides are illiterate.
This practice is most prevalent in Sanliurfa, on the Syrian border, where the proportion of marriages with someone under 16 increases to 60 per cent.
Although child brides are more prevalent in rural communities, they can be found in cities like Izmir, one of Anatolia's main urban centres known for its cosmopolitanism, where the proportion of married girls under 16 is 17 per cent.
Tunc's data show that throughout Turkey about 37 per cent or one marriage in three involves child brides. And as in other countries in the Middle East, young brides usually end up with older men, widowers, or even men who rape them. Turkish newspapers report cases of violence against children almost on a daily basis.
Recently, the Daily Milliyet published an article with a dozen of stories about people in the village of Dundarli in the central Anatolia region. In some cases, some families forced their daughters, as young as 11, to marry. The newspaper's investigation triggered the reaction of local authorities who rejected the findings.
Although unrecognised under Turkish law, religious marriages are widespread among Muslims. Under Article 230 of the Turkish Penal Code, anyone forcing religious marriage on underage people could get two to six months in jail. However, for non-believers or non-practicing families, religious marriage is one way of getting around the law.
In addition to religious tradition, the lack of clear legislation and poor enforcement of other existing laws favour the practice of arranged marriages between adults and teens.
Many young brides flee their family or commit suicide to avoid marrying older men. One example is that of R M, 17, from Urfa (southeastern Turkey) who was sold by her uncle for US$ 4,600 to a man who was 20 years older than her. She ran away from home and went to the police who blocked the marriage.
In October 2013, the head of Turkey's Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs), Mehmet Gormez, described the practice of arranged marriages as "ruthless".
In his view, "Whoever tries to find an argument or justification [for child brides] in any Islamic source does injustice both to religion and that girl child. That is why it is all of our responsibility to take all these information [historical facts] again and share them with society anew" to prevent them.