Controversy in Turkey: Proposed Statutory Rape Bill Sparks Outrage
By Pooja Kanabur
Over the past decade, statutory rape has become an increasingly prevalent issue in Turkey, with hundreds of children falling prey in juvenile prisons, religious schools, boarding houses. The number of reported rape cases from 2008 to 2013 increased 30%, with about half of reported victims being minors. Furthermore, from 2004 to 2014, court cases involving the sexual harassment of minors rose from 4,032 to 18,104— an increase of almost 450%.
As a result, it’s no surprise that outrage ensued on November 17, 2016, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) made a proposal to Parliament that it would pardon men charged with statutory rape prior to November 16, 2016 if they have agreed to marry their victims. This controversial bill, which has the potential to pardon up to 3,000 child rapists, would apply to statutory rape cases without use of “force, threat, or any other restriction on consent” involving girls aged fifteen years or younger.
So what exactly does this bill mean? Since its proposal, AKP members have been working nonstop on television and social media to defend the bill from every angle. According to the government, the aim is not to excuse rape but to “rehabilitate those who may not have realized their sexual relations were unlawful” and to prevent girls who have sex under the age of eighteen from feeling ostracized by their community. Furthermore, they argue that the legislation is an effective way to deal with legal complications arising from child marriage, a custom that remains widespread throughout Turkey.
The Minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdag, a strong proponent of the bill, claims that it is a response to the “unfortunate reality of teenage marriage in Turkey’s conservative society,” arguing that “the law doesn’t cover rapists, just people who had sex with minors.” According to Mr. Bozdag, this law would provide one-time relief for about 3,000 men currently in jail, all of whom he considers victims, who are in a religious marriage yet unable to obtain civil marriage certificate due to the girl’s age. The government insists that in all cases that will be pardoned, the sexual acts have taken place with the consent of the minors and their families.
Despite the government’s claims of good intentions behind this bill, the public has reacted in outrage. Twitter users are protesting with the hashtag #TecavuzMesrulastirilamaz—“rape cannot be legitimized,” while an online petition urging authorities to block the legislation has received over 600,000 signatures. Furthermore, although public gatherings and demonstrations are illegal under Turkish emergency law, several women’s organizations have led protest marches across the country.
Opponents to the bill have found numerous issues with the proposal. Some claim that the proposed law “normalizes a crime against humanity” and may even encourage child marriage and statutory rape. The pro-government Women and Democracy Association (Kadem) has said that one of the biggest problems of the bill would be proving what constituted force or consent, as identifying the “own will” of such a young girl is nearly impossible. Gauri van Gulik of Amnesty International director agrees with both these statements, claiming that the bill runs the risk of “sending the wrong message” about the consequences of sexual abuse and that it is “impossible…to guarantee that there was in fact full and informed consent of the girl, not just of her family.” While the government sees the bill as a means of protecting its citizens, critics say it legitimizes rape and child marriage, in addition to letting off men who are well aware of their crime.
Although the bill was initially approved upon its introduction to Parliament on November 17, due to the intense public condemnation, the AKP agreed on November 22 to recall the proposed law—for now. And though in this instance public opposition and protest prevented the bill from becoming law, Turkey’s issues are far from resolved. In a country where child marriage is still rampant and sexual crimes are on the rise, this is but a small victory on a long path to true liberty, equality, and democracy. However, there’s no doubt that repeal of this bill offers a glimmer of hope that Turkey is working to solve its social and political issues and will one day became a safe, fair place for all.