UNICEF Global     TR
Leave your contact details to get regular news from UNICEF

7.4 Marriage and early marriages

In the 2007 Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health Survey of the Population Association and the UNFPA, 69% of the 15-24 year-olds questioned said that they had had a boyfriend or girlfriend at some time and 52% said that they currently had one, with the first experience of having a boyfriend or girlfriend typically coming at the age of 13-15. However, the proportion of young people with experience of having a boyfriend or a girlfriend worked out significantly lower for girls, in rural areas, in lower socioeconomic categories and for young people with lower levels of educational achievement status. This suggests that there are some limitations on having, or reporting having, a boyfriend/girlfriend in certain parts of society especially for girls.

Formalised, heterosexual marriage is a strong social norm, and is almost universal. The majority of young people live with their parents (or other guardians or relatives) right up until they get married, unless away from home for reasons of study, military service or work. According to the reported initial results of the 2012 “Turkey’s Youth Profile” survey carried out by the think-tank SETA, some 80% of unmarried 15-29 year-olds questioned live with their parents (The remainder lived alone, with friends, in student hostels or with other relatives).

The legal age of marriage is 17 for both boys and girls. Under-18s require the approval of their parents. In extraordinary circumstances, marriage may be permitted at 16 with the approval of a judge. The minimum age at which a child can be deemed to have consented to sexual intercourse is 15. By tradition, marriage has come early, especially for women. The mean age of those getting married for the first time in 2011 was 26.6 in the case of men and 23.3 in the case of women, according to official administrative data published by Turkstat. These figures represent increases of about one year by comparison with 2001 (They may slightly exaggerate the age of first marriage since they encompass only civil marriage ceremonies - See below for religious ceremonies). According to the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) conducted by the Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, the median age of first marriage (including religious ceremonies) among married women aged 25-9 in 2008 was 22.1, compared to 20.4 for 35-39 year-olds. The gradual increase in the average age of marriage is related to social change, especially longer years of schooling for girls, and may therefore continue. However, the typical age of first marriage remains significantly lower than average in rural areas, in the lowest socioeconomic groups and among less-educated women. There may also be local, ethnic or other variations. The 2008 DHS indicated that while 22.7% of women aged 25-9 had never been married, 17.1% had been married by the age of eighteen and 2.3% by the age of fifteen. According to the initial reported results of the Family Structure Survey carried out by the Family and Social Affairs Ministry General Directorate for Family and Community Services in 2011, 9.3% of women who got married between 2006 and 2010 were under 18 at the time. Even the official administrative data for 2011 shows that 22.0% of all brides were aged 16-19 (For all grooms, the percentage is 2.4%). This ratio rises to 35-43% in a number of central, eastern and southeastern provinces.

In one way and another, parents or other elders continue to play a significant role in the selection of marriage partners in many parts of society, especially in those parts of society where marriage comes earliest, and in the case of girls. While 75% of men aged 15-24 and 58% of women responding to the 2007 Population Association/UNFPA survey said that they believed that decisions about marriage should be taken by young people themselves – and not together with their families – this does not appear to be the case in practice. The marriages of their sons and daughters – the economic or social status of their partners, the amounts spent on receptions and so on – are an important source of prestige for parents. Parents may maintain an effective right of veto over sons’ or (especially) daughters’ choices of partner – a veto right enhanced by tradition and economic power, and which many young people may never question. Young people often internalise traditional rules or assumptions about suitable partners (same religion, same sect, same ethnic group, same social circle, compatible level of education etc.).

Many parents exert (and are expected by their communities to exert) careful control over their sons’ or (especially) daughters’ socialisation, making it difficult for possible partners to meet one another independently. It is very common for parents or other elders to introduce young people to perceivedly suitable marriage partners. More than half of currently-married couples are thought to have met one another by görücü usulü – i.e., they were introduced to one another with a view to their getting married. Social and family pressure and tradition, and lack of other options, may limit the extent to which young people are able to oppose such “proposals”.

In some parts of society, young people’s sexuality and marriage rights are effectively owned by elders and parents (Honour crimes are discussed elsewhere), and may be used to cement family ties, prevent the division of property through inheritance, avoid payment of a bride price (See below) or for other similar purposes. This leads to forms of arranged marriage such as exchanges of brides and grooms (e.g.: where a girl is obliged to marry the brother of the girl whom her brother marries, or where brides and grooms are exchanged to end blood feuds), or the marriage of young people to the widows or widowers of their elder brothers or sisters. Most marriages between relatives (typically cousins) are likely to be arranged marriages too. The bride price is a fairly widespread tradition whereby parents expect to receive a payment in return for their daughters’ hands in marriage. A counterpart to the strong influences which parents, elders and the community exert over marriage is the tradition of “elopement”, in which young lovers defy their families’ wishes and “escape” together - or the girls are “kidnapped” by the boys – often forcing the (disgraced) families to accept marriages they opposed or would have opposed.

The 2006 Family Structure survey found roughly equal numbers of existing marriages where the partners (a) decided by themselves to get married and secured the approval of their families, (b) met by görücü usulü and decided to get married themselves and (c) met by görücü usulü and married by decision of their families. Only about 8% of couples had been married in spite of or without the knowledge of the families. 16.8% of marriages involved the payment of a bride price, and although this practice appears to be dying out over time, it still occurred in 10.2% of the marriages of married persons aged 18-24, which may be a significant finding with respect to early marriage (see below). 20.9% of all existing marriages were between relatives, rising to 40.4% in Southeast Anatolia. According to the reported initial results of the 2011 Family Structure Survey, 44.2% of first marriages were by “görücü usulü and own decision”, 38.7% by “own decision with family approval”, 9.4% by “görücü usulü without own opinion being asked”, 4.3% by elopement, 2.9% by own decision without family approval and 0.5% by exchange (berdel), while marriages between relatives declined from 19% in 1996-2000 and 20% in 2001-5 to 17.3% in 2006-10.

Early marriage: NGOs and the media have raised concern in recent years that early marriage, including very early marriage, usually for girls, persists or may even be increasing. Many cases have been reported from numerous regions, including poorer and less educated social groups, particularly those living in rural areas or of rural origin (Early marriage for both girls and boys also occurs among the Roma). Early marriage is in most cases an infringement of a girl’s reproductive health rights and denies her the chance to choose her own partner and future; it is also likely to lead to her withdrawal from education and so increase her risk of poverty. It turns girls into housewives at an age when they have not completed their physical, emotional and social development, and should be learning and playing. It paves the way for early childbirth and for multiple pregnancies and high fertility, which can have negative health consequences for both mother and child, and further exacerbate the cycle of poverty. In addition, girls who marry early are likely to face domestic violence due to their lack of status and in some cases legal rights. Early marriage sometimes has secondary consequences as well, such as the non-registration of babies born, or the prosecution of the ‘husband’ for sexual assault (and of others for aiding and abetting).

Data on the prevalence of early and very early marriage in Turkey is mixed. The 2008 Demographic and Health Survey showed that 9.7% of women aged 18 had either given birth or were already pregnant with their first child. The age was 4.4% for 17 year-olds, 2.2% for sixteen year-olds and 0.4% for fifteen year-olds. According to the same source, early child-bearing (mother or pregnant by the age of 20) appears to be most widespread in rural areas and among the second-lowest socioeconomic quintile. Out of twelve regions, it is most widespread in Central East Anatolia, but also relatively common in the Aegean, West Black Sea, Central Anatolia and West Anatolia regions.

Under-age marriages take the form – at least initially - of unofficial religious marriages, since living together without a marriage ceremony of any kind remains very rare. The provision of the Penal Code forbidding religious marriages in the absence of a parallel civil registration has not been enforced. Under-age marriages may or may not be formalised through civil ceremonies when the under-age bride (or groom) reaches the legal age of marriage (This complicates the interpretation of data on forms of marriage. According to the 2008 DHS survey, the percentage of couples who had been married via a religious ceremony only was 3.7% in 2008, rising to 5.1% in rural areas and 16.1% in Southeast Anatolia. The Family Structure Surveys yield slightly different results).

In May 2009, the Parliamentary Committee on Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men set up a sub-committee of five members to conduct research on child marriage. The committee reported back in early 2011 with a series of detailed findings and recommendations, headed by a recommendation to enforce the law. Nevertheless, the causes and consequences of early marriage in Turkey may not have been fully expounded. The fact that the marriage of children - especially girls - before the age of 18 was commonplace in the past - and is still regarded as acceptable, normal or even desirable in many parts of society - helps to create a climate favourable to early marriage. However, early marriages may not merely reflect the persistence of this and other harmful traditions; they may also point to their revival or reinvention under new social conditions. Families in economic difficulties, including urban families of rural origin, may hope that their daughters’ new families will be able to provide for them better economically, or may simply be glad of one less mouth to feed, and be pleased to receive the bride price. This potentially paves the way for daughters to be sold into marriage. Marriages of young girls from southeast Turkey to men from central Turkish cities and of young girls from neighbouring Syria to men on the Turkish side of the border have occasionally come under the spotlight in the press. In some cases, “demand” may come from older men who are already married, possibly signifying increased acceptability or tolerance of polygamy in some parts of society. Families with traditional values finding themselves in new urban surroundings may see marriage as a way of safeguarding their daughters’ safety and/or their own family honour by preventing premarital sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Early marriages, including very early marriages, may also be linked to the various forms of arranged marriage mentioned above: not unusually, for example, the only member of a family “available” for an exchange marriage, for example, may be a child. 

All efforts to reduce poverty and gender disparities, to establish the rights of women, to ensure full participation in secondary education and to empower the most vulnerable groups in society are likely to reduce early marriage. In order to tackle child marriage more specifically, the current situation may need to be mapped and analysed further, since causal factors may vary from place to place and social group to social group. It may also be necessary to increase commitment among politicians and opinion leaders, to raise awareness among public officials, professionals, parents, men and others, as well as among children and adolescents themselves, and to ensure the support of all government sectors, community leaders, community-based NGOs and the media. There is also a need for debate on the existing legislation and its enforcement, including how the law on religious marriages should be enforced without harming the young people concerned, and how religious officials can prevent rather than facilitate early marriages. The possibility of abolishing or combating the bride price needs to be considered. Meanwhile, girls and boys who are already in union and married before the age of 18 need to be supported.

UNICEF Turkey Country Office, Yukarı Dikmen Mah. Alexsander Dubçek Cd. 7/106, 06450 Çankaya/Ankara. Telephone: +90 312 454 1000 Fax: +90 312 496 1461 E-mail: ankara@unicef.org