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December 10, 2012, Monday

Statistics and real lives

The bruised face of Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy Fatma Kotan Salman, who has just divorced her husband after earlier seeking a restraining order against him, has probably done more to bring domestic violence to the attention of members of Parliament than the dozens of newspaper accounts of murder and senseless abuse and the numerous reports produced by women’s rights organization in recent months and years.

Connecting data sets and matter-of-fact press accounts with the emotionally charged reality of family violence is not always easy, especially when acknowledging what is happening behind closed doors in many homes is not something that conservative male politicians particularly want to do. This particular case demonstrates once more that domestic abuse can involve people from all backgrounds and also takes place in families that neighbors would probably describe as above suspicion.

Kotan herself has refrained from commenting on her private life. Some media reports suggest that she had suffered in silence for a number of years for fears of upsetting her relatives. If a member of Parliament, a strong woman, can feel such pressure, imagine how limited the options are for women who have little education and no earnings of their own.

And what of the many children brought up in a dysfunctional environment where the risk of violence, physical and verbal, is omnipresent? Their needs and their protection are too often overlooked.

The Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), in cooperation with the justice and interior ministries as well as the State Planning Organization (DPT), has just produced a new report about the children who, in one way or the other, have come to the attention of law enforcement authorities in Turkey’s 81 provinces. The figures are quite striking: 27,000 minors under the age of 18 went missing, were abducted or ran away between 2008 and 2011, and of these only 5,924 were found. More alarming still is the fact that their number keeps increasing.

But missing children are only one category of youngsters flagged on the authorities’ radar. Altogether, children “received in a security unit” are on the rise: There were 132,592 in 2008, but 204,040 last year. In total, 676,000 youngsters have come to the attention of law enforcement during 2008-2011; some as offenders, others as victims of violence and sexual abuse, street children and runaways or simply for having been abandoned.

Although the categories are neatly separated in the report, the reality behind the numbers is undoubtedly more muddled. Categories inevitably overlap. Children are not born offenders; many among those who figure in the “offender” column got there because they came from families that were unable to cope with their responsibilities or even abusive families. Runaway teenagers may be fleeing traumatic situations at home, but left on the streets, they are at risk of more exploitation and violence at the hands of adults.

The survey was meant to provide a detailed picture of juvenile delinquency in Turkey. It does produce useful, and disturbing, data.

But ultimately numbers reveal little about the tragic individual stories, the broken lives and especially the deep social issues that caused these youngsters to become statistics and to symbolize lives that have gone off track and need to be rescued. Nor can data even hint at the emotional cost paid by all involved.

By giving an idea of the magnitude of the problem, the report will hopefully spur the authorities into investigating and addressing the underlying social issues, improving early detection and devising policies that provide support and protection before children are “received in security units” or listed as missing. Right now, it appears that too many youngsters still fall through the cracks of society.

Previous articles of the columnist