Members of the Turkish parliament are currently debating a bill that would clear men of statutory rape charges if they marry the underage girls they raped.
If the bill passes, men who have sex with girls under 18, the country’s official age of consent, without “force, threat, or any other restriction on consent” will be able to marry their victims to avoid going to prison for rape. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) brought the bill to the table, and Turkish MPs gave it a preliminary approval on Thursday. It will be subject to a second debate on Tuesday before coming up for a binding vote. Some private citizens who oppose the bill are making X’s on their clothes with adhesive bandages as a visible signal of protest.
This bill would provide legal loopholes for rape and child marriage in Turkey, which is already facing an epidemic of violence against women. The BBC reports that 40 percent of Turkish women have reported being victimized by physical or sexual abuse; between 2003 and 2010, the rate of murders of women increased 1,400 percent.
Supporters of the proposed bill, including top government officials, say it would protect “families” in which an older man gets a young girl pregnant, then goes to prison for his crime, leaving the girl and her child alone to fend for themselves. “We determined that there are 3,000 families living like this,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Friday, defending the bill. Girls in such situations may be rejected by their communities, and some are already married by religious ceremonies, if not by law, to their statutory rapists.
By making sex with a child legal under the auspices of marriage, the bill would give cover to child rapists, who could negotiate with a victim’s family to arrange a marriage so she doesn’t bring them shame. Child marriage is not uncommon in Turkey, especially in rural areas; according to UNICEF, 14 percent of women currently aged 20 to 24 were already married by the time they turned 18.
The reasoning behind statutory rape laws holds that children cannot give meaningful consent to sex. Yet Turkey’s proposed bill still rests on the concept of consent, as if children can somehow function as adults within the adult institution of marriage. Child marriage is abuse in itself; to use it as a mitigating factor in a rape would be a complete perversion of justice to favor the desires of older men over the rights and physical, psychological, and emotional well-being of girls.
In some U.S. states, laws like this already exist. A recent Pew report found that, as of 2014, 57,800 children age 15 to 17 were married in the U.S. In West Virginia and Texas, where child marriage is most common, about 7 of every 1,000 15- to 17-year-olds were married. Most states set the legal marriage age at 18, but they all have loopholes for people aged 16 and 17 who have the consent of their parents or an order from a judge.
A few states will let an even younger teen marry if she’s pregnant or has already given birth to a child with her prospective spouse. Massachusetts lets 12-year-old girls and 14-year-old boys get married with permission from their parents and a judge. Florida judges can grant a legal marriage to a child of any age if one of the marital parties is pregnant. Virginia just outlawed child marriage earlier this year. Before the new law took effect, parents were letting pregnant children as young as 13 marry their sexual abusers, and the state was validating their marriages, protecting the older man—and it was almost always a man—from prosecution.