ISTANBUL — “I was 13,” said Nezihe. “He had been following me on my way to school and back. One day, he forced me into his car while I was leaving school and kidnapped me. He was somebody I had never seen before. They had made a deal with my family that very evening. A religious marriage (imam nikah) was performed, and the next thing I knew, I was at his house.”

Nezihe’s is a tragic story of a child violently forced into marriage. And she is not alone. Another awful saga of this serious violation of human rights, even when religious tradition allows it:

“I came back home from work,” another woman recalled. “The man my sister had married one night before brought her back home saying she was not a virgin. He was furious. My father, who was scared to death that his honor would be harmed, offered him my youngest sister. I intervened, saying that I would marry him. What  was I going to do? My sister was just a child, 11 years old. I was 14.”

I met yet another victim, Saadet, in a town in Turkey’s far eastern province of Van. She had been forced to become the wife of a man she says she will hate for the rest of her life. Nineteen years later, I saw nothing but rage and hopelessness in her eyes as she told me what she had endured.

Both Nezihe, now 29, and Saadet, now 32, do not live with their “husbands” anymore, but they are not divorced either. Forced marriage happens through pressure, threat, force, intimidation and trickery. Having minors married is a punishable crime, according to Turkish laws. There are cases of prosecutors filing investigations against the parents of married minors, and yet too many cases like Nezihe’s and Saadet’s continue.

I met Nezihe in another eastern province, Mus. During our conversation, she used the phrase “for my father” seven times. “The man who kidnapped me, and his family, threatened to kill my father unless I said I ran away willingly,” she recalled. “He would do it. My father asked me that evening. What was I supposed to say? I said I had run away. For my father. But they shouln't have let me go that easily. They should have said no. They shouldn’t have allowed it. I was a child, their child.”

Turkish law is clear that having a religious ceremony without a legal marriage certificate is punishable with a prison sentence of two to six months. And yet...

“I was a child myself”

Nezihe told me how there was another woman there when she got to her new home, the man’s wife through a religious marriage. “They had a child too, almost the same age as me. I secretly watched the child playing with great envy,” she said.

The religious ceremony followed soon after. The imam who performed the ceremony asked neither Nezihe’s age nor for any legal documentation. 

Early marriage means early pregnancy. Childbirth for those whose bodies are not yet developed, or who are not emotionally ready for motherhood, may result in lifelong problems. According to the World Health Organization, women who become pregnant before the age of 19 are four times more likely to lose their babies than older mothers.

So often, forced marriages condemn young women to a lifetime of violence. “For my father, I went to that house to save him from being killed,” Nezihe said. “But I was subjected to violence as soon as I arrived. That man, his family, everybody was angry at me for some reason. I was beaten up for whatever my mistakes could be.”

Nezihe said her children suffered too, hiding in a closet whenever their father started to shout and attack her.

Civil law in Turkey asserts that “marriage makes the person an adult,” but according to the Child Protection Law, “Every individual under 18 is a child. Children continue to benefit from all of their rights included in UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Rights denied

The existence of laws that could protect children don’t matter when victims don’t know their rights, something that Saadet has begun to understand. “There was something called children’s rights,” she said. “Did I know I was a child and that as a child I had rights? Ask me when did I ever feel I was human. I’m only understanding all of this now, little by little. Because I have a daughter too, and I will never let what happened to me happen to her.”

Since child marriages aren’t legal, there are no real provisions for divorce in these cases. “I wanted to get divorced very badly,” Saadet explained. “But I can’t get a divorce because of problems regarding the custody of the children.”

Nezihe is a mother of two, while Saadet has four children. Neither of these two strong women have had any real education. They’ve gained awareness only progressively, through their own efforts and suffering. They are determined that whatever it was that demanded their sacrifice, they will keep it away from their daughters. They know that the most important thing to do so is to send them to school.

Education of girls is critical to preventing child marriages. A mandatory and uninterrupted system that continues until the age of 18, and forbids marriage as long as girls are in school, would go a long way toward mitigating the problem. Countries such as Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea have eliminated child marriage with mandatory education.

Unfortunately in Turkey, the current education system makes home education possible after the 10th grade, and the graduation age can be lowered to 16. A girl attending middle school at Karakopru Village explained the situation with surprising wisdom. “If we do not come to school — I mean if we stay at home — they can do what they want with us because our minds would be insufficient. We can say ‘no’ if we are educated.”

Forcing children to marry is nothing short of violence, the sexual exploitation of minors. Don’t dare call it “tradition.”