Turkey puts off controversial sexual assault and consent bill

Following a public outcry, Turkey's government has withdrawn a proposal that critics feared would legitimize the practice of men marrying underage girls.

Opponents argued the bill amounted to a pardon for men married to young accusers

Protesters shout slogans in Istanbul against the government on Nov. 19 as they hold placards reading 'Rape cannot be legalized' during a demonstration against the controversial bill which would pardon some people imprisoned for statutory rape. (Sedat Suna/EPA)

Following a public outcry, Turkey's government has withdrawn a proposal that critics feared would legitimize the practice of men marrying underage girls.

The proposal, which was scheduled to undergo a final vote on Tuesday, would have deferred sentencing or punishment for sexual assault in cases where there was no physical force and where the victim and perpetrator were married. The government said it would now submit the proposal for review to a parliamentary committee.

The age of consent in Turkey is 18, although courts permit civil marriages for people as young as 16. Many younger people are married in Islamic ceremonies.

The government has argued for the need to redress "unfair treatment" of families where fathers were placed in jail for marrying girls under the age of 18 even if both parties and their parents consented. The proposal by the ruling Justice and Development Party, rooted in Turkey's Islamic movement, would have applied to cases that had occurred between 2005 and Nov. 16 of this year.

Young brides not uncommon

Opponents argued that the bill amounted to a pardon for statutory rape if the perpetrator was married to his victim and would disrupt efforts to prevent child marriages and sexual assault on children. They maintained that it would, for example legitimize the practice of men being able to take brides as young as 13 or 14, especially in rural areas.

Hours before the vote, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters the government was pulling back the proposal from the floor and would ask an all-party commission on family affairs to review it.

His comments came after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the state-run Anadolu Agency late on Monday that a broad consensus on the issue should be sought.

"Due to a lack of full public consensus, our president's call for a broad consensus and to allow opposition parties to develop their own proposals, we are taking this proposal which is in parliament to the commission," Yildirim said. "This problem will certainly be solved after being discussed in detail, with all parties' views being taken into account."

Hundreds of people gathered in front of the parliament building to protest the measure, even after the government pulled it back.

Calls for bill to be permanently scrapped

Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the opposition nationalist party called on the government to abandon the measure completely, and that submitting it to a review is not enough.

"Don't suffocate Turkey any further with such meaningless and empty discussions," Bahceli said in a speech in parliament.

Opposition parties, rights groups and citizens had widely condemned the proposal, issuing statements and staging demonstrations across multiple cities nationwide.

Erdogan's own daughter was among the high profile women, in addition to the public protests, who were upset about the bill.

United Nations agencies, including the children's fund UNICEF, issued a joint statement on Monday warning that the proposal "would weaken the country's ability to combat sexual abuse and child marriages."

The government had insisted it was committed to fighting child marriages but said the one-time measure was needed to help some 3,800 families where underage marriages had occurred according to customs.

"We cannot ignore this [problem]," Yildirim said. "There are 3,800 cases and thousands of children. The children are paying the price of their parents' mistakes."

In 2005, the government scrapped loopholes in legislation that had allowed men to escape rape charges if he married his victim as part of efforts to join the European Union.

With files from CBC's Nil Köksal