Because gender discrimination often starts at birth -- or even when babies are still in the womb, since millions of female fetuses have been aborted in countries like China or India. Few events illustrate better the challenges that young girls still face in many parts of the world than the cowardly shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl who was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban on Tuesday. In 2009, at the age of 11, when the religious radicals ruling over the Swat region were closing girls schools and staging public executions, she had expressed her fears, her sadness and her anger in a moving and articulate blog published by the BBC.
These armed men felt threatened enough by this courageous young girl, who was claiming her basic right to education, to try and silence her. They even warned that they would attack her again if she survived. The inspiring teenager is still fighting for her life after a bullet was removed from her head.
The shooting demonstrates the extremes to which some misogynistic radicals are prepared to go to deny young girls their rights, using tradition and a warped understanding of religion as justification for their actions. But many female children around the world are routinely denied a chance to reach their potential in ways that are less visible, but nonetheless deeply damaging for the young females involved, and for society as a whole.
To mark the first International Day of the Girl Child, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) regional office in Turkey chose to highlight the plight of child brides, releasing factsheets about the nations it oversees. The few statistics available on Turkey show that in spite of growing awareness of the rights of girls and women, underage marriage remains a serious issue. Although the Turkish Parliament has formed a sub-commission to address early marriage, the full scale of the problem isn’t even known because, in this field as in many others, data collection in Turkey remains insufficient. No figures exist, for instance, for informal marriages conducted only in front of an imam, which are illegal unless preceded by a civil union, nor is child marriage penalized under the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).
The UNFPA factsheet shows that many Turks continue to marry at a young age: 23 percent of the 582,715 marriages conducted in 2010, for instance, involved a bride under the age of 19. The Turkey Demographic and Health Survey (TDHS) conducted in 2008, quoted by the UNFPA, put the median age of marriage for women at 20.8, which means that half of brides are younger when they tie the knot. In fact, the survey showed that 28.2 percent of Turkish women were below the age of 18 when they were first married.
Young girls forced into early marriages are dependent on their husbands, who are often much older; this situation makes them more vulnerable to domestic violence. Early marriage also leads to early pregnancy, with the risk of health complications. The UNFPA points out that “the curriculum used in schools in Turkey does not provide adequate information on sexual and reproductive health.” At the time of the TDHS survey in 2008, 40.2 percent of young married women in the 15-19 age group were using some form of family planning, but only 17.6 percent of them were using modern methods. Six percent of teens in that age group were found to have begun childbearing. Several factors contribute to child marriage: poverty is one, and a bride price, although illegal, is still paid in many marriages -- money was exchanged for 14.6 percent of all married Turkish women, according to the TDHS. The highest prevalence, 40 percent, was found among young women who had no education or had not finished primary school. But traditions and religious perceptions dictating that girls should be married shortly after puberty to prevent them from getting into trouble also play an important part in the persistence of this practice, which fuels gender inequality. Turkish youths reach official maturity at 18, yet they can marry at 17, or even at 16 with the approval of a judge, while sexual assault is considered a crime against children under 15. Harmonizing the legislation would help in the fight against early marriage. The UNFPA also recommends that health institutions report early marriages and pregnancies, and a proper government strategy be implemented throughout the country. But it is especially in schools that social practices and perceptions can be challenged, by sensitizing teachers to gender equality, and giving more information on girls’ rights, reproductive health and family planning to students, male and female. Female school enrollment has improved significantly in recent years, but Turkey needs to ensure that girls also stay in school longer to help curb child marriage.