Opponent of Istanbul Convention on domestic violence says 12 to 17 ‘ideal age for childbirth’

Girls aged 12 to 17 are “superwomen,” at the “ideal age for childbirth,” Muttalip Kutluk Özgüven, a computer scientist, said during a televised debate about the Istanbul Convention on violence against women and domestic violence broadcast on the pro-government conservative Akit TV channel on Tuesday.

“Ask any doctor you like,” Özgüven said, “the human beings with the most supreme qualities are girls between these ages.”

Bodies of young girls are “perfect,” and have “magnificent regeneration capabilities,” he continued. “This is the ideal age to give birth to the first child.”

The Istanbul Convention is a Council of Europe treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence that was opened for signature in Istanbul. On March 12, 2012, Turkey became the first country to ratify the convention and it has now been signed by 45 countries and the European Union.

In a segment aired on Saturday, the third one last week discussing the Istanbul Convention, Akit TV said Özgüven’s comments had been misconstrued.

Leading up to the comments that sparked a flurry of protest on Turkish social media, Özgüven had said the right to marry was bestowed on girls by virtue of Allah turning them into women with the onset of puberty, and that “perhaps they should also be mentally competent”.

Restrictions on marriage age tell a 13-year-old girl, “having reached a certain level of mind, body and organs,” that she cannot live out her womanhood for another ten years, he had said.

According to the World Health Organisation, the leading cause of death for girls between ages 15 to 19 is pregnancy and birth-related complications.

Mothers aged 10 to 19 “face higher risks of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis, and systemic infections … and babies of adolescent mothers face higher risks of low birth weight, preterm delivery and severe neonatal conditions,” the WHO says.

Girls who become pregnant before the age of 18 are also more likely to experience domestic violence.

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention, criminalises forcing a child, i.e. anybody younger than 18, into marriage.

“It is important to note, however, that the convention neither addresses early marriages nor does it deal with the question of marriageable age,” says a Council of Europe pamphlet on children’s rights with regard to the Istanbul Convention.

The convention’s main focus is on criminalising “domestic violence in all its elements,” as physical, sexual and psychological violence, with harsher sentences if the victim is a child or the crime was committed in the presence of a child.

Turkish conservative circles have voiced objections to the convention since it was signed in 2011, saying that it aimed to destroy the family as an institution.

Opponents of the convention “know that domestic violence and oppression ensures the perpetuation of the patriarchal family,” writes Eylem Ümit Atılgan, University of Kyrenia’s Vice Dean for the Faculty of Law, and removes the distinction between “rebellious women who can be killed” and “acceptable women who deserve to live”.

“The removal of this distinction, for the opponents of the convention, is the end of the family as they know it,” Atılgan says.

Article 4 of the Istanbul Convention stipulates measures “for everyone, particularly women, to live free from violence in both the public and the private sphere,” and prohibits “discrimination on any grounds,” including sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.

The convention does not refer to homosexuality or transsexuality outside of the discrimination clause.

Backlash against the convention shares many elements with that directed at the Law No. 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence against Women, which was passed shortly after the convention was signed, as both provide women subjected to domestic violence with improved mechanisms to take action against abusive partners.

The law “increases rage and violence” instead of solving problems, as divorce rates had gone up in Turkey, and women “can use this measure against men even about an ordinary matter,” Akit TV’s sister newspaper Yeni Akit quoted a therapist as saying in February.

“A woman rebelling against her husband is not freedom,” said another Yeni Akit article published on Friday, May 15, as it lamented adultery and rising divorce rates.

“When you hear the words ‘gender equality’, it sounds like a beautiful thing,” Muttalip Kutluk Özgüven said in the Akit TV programme that sparked the recent outrage. “This is based on the idea that … people are born without sex and are pressured by society to become men or women,” in an apparent reference to a gender equality guide book produced by Koç Holding, one of Turkey’s biggest industrial conglomerates that supports various social justice causes.

“But if you would let them, maybe they would be homosexuals,” Özgüven continued. “Maybe they would want to rape small children.”

Özgüven’s co-panellist Ebubekir Sofuoğlu said the Istanbul Convention had been signed to further Western ideas imposed upon Turkey, and that its supporters wanted minors to engage in sexual activity “not in a legitimate manner, but instead to commit prostitution”.

Sofuoğlu also said the convention made it impossible for Turkey to demand repatriation for female terrorists, and for Turkish parents to object to their teenaged children having gender reassignment surgery.

Conversely, Atılgan defines the convention as “a binding higher regulation that tasks states with effectively combatting violence against women and domestic violence.”

The articles Sofuoğlu cites pertain to a non-refoulement principle for victims of violence who may be irregular migrants and asylum seekers who might face mistreatment or torture in their countries of origin, and cases involving minors where the best interests of the child cannot be guaranteed in any other way, with no mention of gender identity.

The Istanbul Convention “merely says that states cannot discriminate in cases where a person is subjected to violence, like doctors cannot,” lawyer and feminist advocate Hülya Gülbahar said during a livestream discussing the convention on Wednesday. “Is there an option to withhold treatment of a heart attack because the sufferer wears a headscarf, or is homosexual? No. There cannot be.”

Opposition to the convention “must be considered in tandem with femicides and impunity in (Turkey’s) tradition of law,” Atılgan says, adding that Turkish courts “often believe that disobedient women deserve violence,” and “award reductions in sentencing based on manhood”.

In recent years Turkish courts viewed women demanding a divorce, refusing to sleep with their partners, and “a porn actress wearing a similar pullover and headscarf to the woman,” as extenuating circumstances in femicide cases, a 2010 report by the Socialist Feminist Collective found.

Under the chapter titled “Prevention,” the Istanbul Convention says: “Parties shall ensure that culture, custom, religion, tradition or so-called ‘honour’ shall not be considered as justification for any acts of violence covered by the scope of this Convention.”

One concrete action the Istanbul Convention calls for is the establishment of a nationwide network of rape crisis centres.

All municipalities of more than 100,000 residents are obliged by law to establish women’s shelters, Gülbahar said in the same livestream. “Currently, 32 municipalities have them.”

“How many people are there in Turkey?” Gülbahar asked. “How many rape crisis centres have we opened since 2014 when the relevant law went into effect? Zero.”

Mechanisms to combat violence have not been implemented in Turkey at all, she continued, despite the binding nature of the convention. “That means (Turkey) will not combat violence.”

Meanwhile, the Akit TV panellists all agreed that the reason for their opposition was “so society won’t become immoral”.