Home not always sweet home

Even by the standards of Turkey’s volatile political environment, the news agenda has been particularly heavy in recent weeks. Reports that one of the first priorities of the new Parliament will be to set up a commission to address the rising divorce rate in the country therefore comes as a surprise.

The national assembly, it is worth mentioning, recently rejected launching an investigation into the killing of Diyarbakir Bar Association head Tahir Elci and it has also refused to tackle the issue of rapidly shrinking media freedom.

But the ruling party, which has an openly conservative social agenda, was alarmed by figures showing that the number of marriages declined 0.1 percent last year to 599,704 while divorce cases increased 4.5 percent to reach 130,913. Nearly 40 percent of the couples that divorced last year had been married less than 5 years, while 21.8 percent had tied the knot 6 to 10 years earlier.

Submitted by AK Party deputies, the motion for a parliamentary research commission views divorce as an issue affecting the entire society, rather than being a matter for the individuals and families concerned. It refers in particular to the trauma caused to children who no longer have access to one of their parents or who end up being abandoned altogether to be brought up in state institutions. The way it is phrased does raise alarm bells, particularly with regard to women who seek to escape unhappy and abusive relationships.

No doubt, divorce can be a traumatic experience for the parties involved and their children, even if it does not have to mean severing contact between parents and their offspring. Most couples marry with the hope of making it work, but sometimes expectations are not met and a difficult separation can be made even harder if it takes place against a social backdrop of stigma and lack of support.

The deputies behind this proposal want to protect the institution of the family, but their motion makes no mention of the fact that all too often it is far from the idyllic oasis of peace and security that officials like to describe.

Divorce is usually the result of several factors. Issues such as tight finances often play a role, but when looking at causes, politicians could start by examining the official survey on violence against women conducted last year, which showed that 38 percent of ever-married women have experienced physical abuse and 44 percent report having been subjected to emotional abuse, insults and humiliation. The research also revealed that early marriage increased the risk of violence significantly.

A conference on forced marriage just held at İzmir’s Gediz University offered a reminder that Turkey has over 180,000 underage brides, half of them illiterate. In 2012, close to 20,000 families launched court procedures to be able to marry their daughters before the age of 16.

In an unsatisfactory relationship, particularly one that involves violence, the home environment becomes a source of stress and misery. Children can be victims behind the closed doors of the family home when they witness abuse or are themselves targeted by a violent parent. In such cases, divorce can be the least damaging option for all concerned. Many women, in Turkey and elsewhere, would argue that being able to stand up for themselves and having the option of leaving an unhappy marriage, unlike in the past when society made it all but impossible, is a positive change. Let’s not forget that many still pay a high cost for trying to take that step. According to figures published by Bianet, nearly one-fifth of the 255 women killed in the first 11 months of this year were trying to leave a relationship or had refused to reconcile with partners they had left.

The discussions in Parliament will no doubt be interesting, as will the findings of this commission, if it is formed. Let’s hope its members will conclude that the best way to make marriage attractive is not by creating obstacles to divorce or putting pressure on spouses to accept an unbearable situation, but by investing more effort into promoting balanced gender relations based on respect, a more equal distribution of responsibilities and chores within the household, and above all, a violence-free environment.