Turkey lacks preventive measures against child sex abuse

Turkey lacks preventive measures against child sex abuse

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Turkey lacks preventive measures against child sex abuse Turkey has yet to develop preventative measures to ensure there is no sexual abuse of children in the country, according to Seda Akço Bilen, a lawyer and children’s rights advocate.

“Currently, we have a debate on whether one case is enough [to make a big issue out of it]. But one is too many,” she said amid an ongoing debate about sexual abuse sparked by the alleged rape of 45 boys by a teacher at a pro-government educational institution in the Central Anatolian province of Karaman. “Even if a single case on child abuse didn’t come to the agenda, we have a situation that we need to think about: Currently, we do not have a system that prevents child abuse.

The last few weeks have seen several news stories about child sexual abuse. Is there an increase in such cases or have they become more visible?

We can’t say whether it is on the rise or not. There is a rise in the number of cases where a judicial process has been initiated. But this is probably due to the fact that in an amendment made in 2005, the definition of the crime of child abuse has been expanded. 

What is the general picture in Turkey in terms of child abuse; how widespread is it?

Currently, we have a debate on whether one case is enough [to make a big issue out of it]. But one is too many. We need to show the courage to face this reality. To discuss whether it was one or 10, whether there is more today than the past is an auxiliary debate. Even if a single case on child abuse didn’t come to the agenda, we have a situation that we need to think about: Currently, we do not have a system that prevents child abuse.

When it comes to what happens after an incident takes place, there we have a system that is not efficient. When a teacher, for instance, finds out that something happened to a child, he or she does not know where to apply. In addition, either they do not know what exactly will happen after the application or they have certain concerns. They are concerned simply because the judicial system is slow and the protection system is not secure. People lack confidence in the institutions where the child in question is to be entrusted. 

But after all, there are needs for such institutions to take the victims under protection.

Indeed. But a teacher is concerned about trusting those institutions and that prevents them from starting a procedure. So society needs to take this issue seriously and keep it on the agenda until we establish an efficient system. Another issue is to take responsibility. We need an understanding in Turkey that would establish a system, monitor the system and see itself as responsible each time there is a problem.

As a society, we do not have the culture of endorsing a systematic approach when facing a problem. And obviously, the issue of child abuse has a dimension pertaining to society’s values and convictions which also make it difficult to deal with.

Can you elaborate?

Child abuse exists everywhere in the world, and we cannot make comparisons as to the reasons. The issue here is the difference with which different societies approach the issue. It would be wrong to say [child abuse] is specific to Islamic societies. But of course there are also reasons that stem from Islam and reasons that stem from the different ways of raising a child in different societies. There is no Islamic reference that legitimizes a sexual relation with a child. Just as other religions, Islam forbids this. But when the question arises as to whom one can marry, some religious people can come up with references that makes marriage with a minor acceptable. 

In our society, one in three women gets married under the age of 18. One group of religious scholars say there is no such thing in Islam. But society acts according to an understanding that has been there for centuries that dictates that once a girl acquires the ability to give birth, she can get married. So society needs to face this reality. Obviously, religion is an important value in society. But we need to see the dimension where it harms the child and tackle it accordingly whether through religious people or other means. The state needs to take action recognizing that reality. 

In the most recent cases, the incidents have taken place in foundations with religious references. Is there a perception in Turkey that a religious foundation is safer for children?

Some think that being religious means being ethical, but this is not what we see in the real world. But here the problem is not whether the foundation is religious or not; the problem is that the state has not regulated this area. There could be foundations established by religious people, and these foundations might not give an education with religious references or they could give a religious education. The problem is monitoring and inspecting these foundations. This area is not regulated.

First of all, children at their early ages should absolutely not be left under the care of institutions. The children that live in these foundations are there because of the poverty of their families. If the state neglects that need or does not inspect those who are serving to answer that need, then you can face all sort of problems. 

All children need to have access to education and health. We live in a society where the percentage of children who cannot receive proper food is nearing 70 percent. Families might send their children to these foundations just because they cannot provide a one-course meal. In societies where people are struggling against hunger, you can’t prevent the establishment of these foundations but with such a big population in need, you cannot inspect all these foundations either. The first thing is that the child should not leave his or her family.

But if there is abuse inside the family, then they should be taken into the care of institutions. That area needs regulation as well. There should be proper inspection on how to choose the personnel that work at these institutions.

It seems the judicial procedure that starts after the incidents are also problematic – in fact, traumatic – for children.

Problems start when we want to inform authorities about a case. A teacher is told to go to the police, or to the local body of the Family and Social Policies Ministry. Sometimes, the latter says this is a criminal issue and to go to the police. But the teacher hesitates to inform the police because the police do not prioritize the correct approach to the victim but initiate legal procedures. The Council of Europe says rather than informing judicial authorities, the application should be made to administrative, multi-disciplinary authorities that are responsible for the protection of the child. They should first intervene to protect the child and then initiate a judicial procedure. So we need a “single-door” system. 

Then the judicial system needs to act fast. If the legal case drags out to three, four or five years the trauma continues for the child and even the families give up in order not to further harm their children.

And that contributes to the culture of impunity since the criminals benefit from that fact. We have to fight the culture of impunity, which is critical. 

Can you talk about the culture of impunity?

This is rather about the cases between opposite sexes with a big age difference. When a case gets sensational, the judges tend to give high sentences, but increasing the sentences leads to a vicious circle: a judge starts thinking this man can marry this girl and that probably the girl had consented, so that if I give a very high sentence, it might be unfair. After all, we are talking about a society where one in three girls are married under the age of 18: these are the sisters and wives of police officers or the relatives of the judges, et cetera. The members of the judiciary live in the same society where marriage at an early age is not seen as something wrong. So in order to avoid heavy sentences, they try to find ways to decrease sentences. A teacher, for instance, says, “My student was in love with me.” It could happen that a girl might fall in love with her teacher, but the teacher should not abuse this situation. But the only outcome is to transfer that teacher to another place.

We raise hell when a 16-year-old girl and a boy sit in a park hand in hand, but we don’t raise hell when a 30-year-old man asks to marry a 15-year-old girl. As long as he has the intention of marrying, then in our eyes there is no problem. If we don’t fight that mentality, we can’t fight the culture of impunity.

What do you think of the reaction of the government? The minister said the specific foundation should not be targeted just because of one incident.

The government is not at the point of saying one is even too much. But their reaction is no different than that of previous governments.

Who is Seda Akço Bilen?

Turkey lacks preventive measures against child sex abuse

Seda Akço Bilen was born in Istanbul in 1966. 

She graduated from Marmara University’s Faculty of Law in 1989. She completed her law internship at the Istanbul Bar Association. She then received her graduate degree from the Forensic Medicine Institute of Istanbul University’s Cerrahpaşa Faculty of Medicine. 

Akço Bilen has provided consultancy on children’s rights to various national and international organizations, including the Istanbul Bar Association, the British Council and UNICEF since 1990. She has conducted in-service training for professionals including lawyers, judges, public prosecutors and police officers since 1994, and has also published a number of articles on children’s rights and human rights. 

Akço Bilen established the Humanist Bureau with Bürge Akbulut in 2010, to provide consultancy on children’s rights to public and private institutions, municipalities, universities and civil society organizations.