Outcry in Turkey as government agency ‘says girls can marry aged nine’

Child Marriage Turkey 3

Child marriage, Girls' education, Right to education

Opposition politicians have called for a parliamentary inquiry into child marriage following the reported statement from the religious affairs body.  

Turkey’s religious affairs state agency came under heavy criticism yesterday from the main opposition party after it reportedly said girls as young as nine could marry under Islamic law.

The Diyanet religious affairs directorate said the minimum age for girls to marry was nine while for boys it was 12, according to Turkish media quoting the agency’s official website.

The post, which took the form of an explanatory statement on Islamic law, has since been taken down after a backlash from the opposition and women’s rights groups.

The head of the High Commission of Religious Affairs Ekrem Keles told Hurriyet news agency that the earliest age for a girl to marry is 17 and 18 for a boy.

“Forget a nine or a 10-year-old child marrying, a child at 15 should not marry and should not be married,” he said.

The legal age to get married in Turkey is 18. But Turkish law says that in an extraordinary circumstance, a judge can give permission for a male and female aged 16 to marry.

The controversy touched a nerve in Turkey, where child marriages are not uncommon and the fight continues to raise girls’ level of education.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Gaye Usluer accused the government of being “more interested in how to marry children at a young age when there needs to be talk on children’s education, health”.

Meanwhile CHP lawmaker Murat Bakan on Twitter said child marriage “violates children’s rights, women’s rights and human rights”, adding that the party had called for a parliamentary investigation into child marriages.

Women’s rights groups also criticised the agency, which is similar to a religious affairs ministry, accusing it of trying to legitimise child abuse and urging Diyanet to “get their hands off our children”.

Child Marriage Turkey Main

Turkey’s legal age of marriage is 18 but early marriages are regularly arranged (UNICEF)

Child marriage in Turkey

About 15% of girls are married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF figures from 2016.

But Girls Not Brides says that may not be a true picture because “most child marriages are unregistered and take place as unofficial religious marriages”.

The ministry said it had “never and will never approve early marriages” in a statement, saying it was only defining Islamic law.

“Forcing girls to marry before psychological and biological maturity, and before they obtain the responsibility to become a mother and form a family is not compatible with Islam which says will and consent are conditions for marriage,” it added.

Women’s groups as well as Usluer raised concern over Diyanet’s move coming after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan approved a controversial law in November allowing state-approved clerics to conduct marriage ceremonies.

“When we said ‘if you give muftis (clerics employed by Diyanet) the power to conduct marriages, the issue of child brides will increase’, this is what we meant,” she said, according to CHP’s website.

Opponents often claim that Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party are attacking the republic’s secular foundations, claims dismissed by the government. 

In 2016, the government was forced to throw out a bill that could have pardoned men convicted of child-sex assault after a public outcry.

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