Last month, a mass child abuse scandal linked to a conservative foundation favoured by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) bubbled to the surface in Turkey. A male teacher (M.B.) was arrested under suspicion of raping at least 10 students at private educational dormitories, some of which were run by the pro-government Ensar Foundation.
A blanket ban on media coverage of the investigation decreed by a local court soon after news of the scandal broke has obscured many of the important details in the case, leaving local media feeding off scraps.
But the broader problem of child abuse in Turkey is becoming much more difficult to hide.
According to the Campaign Against Child Abuse Association, the number of child abuse cases in the country has increased by 50% in the last five years and 125% in the last 10 years.
The campaign says one out of six males and one out of four females suffer some form of abuse while still children.
Turkey's Family and Social Policies Minister Sema Ramazanoğlu stirred public anger by referring to the string of abuses in the provincial town of Karaman as “a one-off incident” and criticised opponents in the parliament calling for action against the foundation for attempting to “defame” Ensar.
That led to the creation of a petition on March 23 on Change.org with over 300,000 signatories to date calling for Ramazanoğlu's dismissal.
On April 5 Ramazanoğlu survived a motion of censure proposed by the opposition after the motion was vetoed by the AKP-dominated parliament.
Karaman'daki tecavüz olayıyla ilgili Aile Bakanı hakkında verilen gensoru reddedildi.AKP'liler tebrik sırasına girdi pic.twitter.com/DxQM7OYNSc
— Tuncay ÖZKAN (@ATuncayOzkan) 5 de abril de 2016
Tuncay Ozkan, an opposition MP from CHP, tweeted shortly after the rejection of the motion of censure: “The motion of censure against the Family Minister regarding the rape scandal in Karaman has been overturned. AKP members are forming a queue to celebrate.”
In response, the #TecavüzAKlandı hashtag (lit. “rape is absolved”) trended on Twitter as children's rights activists led a storm of criticism against the embattled minister.
Despite initially blocking opposition calls for a specially appointed child abuse commission, AKP has since acceded to the request, although 9 of the commission's 15 members will be drawn from the ruling party.
“The biggest issue we face in abuse cases is efforts to cover them up”
More distressing news came at the beginning of this month from the western city of İzmir where police arrested child abuse suspects at two separate schools, and the eastern city of Van, where an English teacher is under investigation for allegedly touching up both male and female students and making students watch sexually explicit videos.
According to a recent report published by local watchdog Bianet, 64 children were harassed in 14 different cities in March alone, while 41% of the abusers detained by police were teachers.
This month Global Voices spoke to clinical psychologist Cemre Soysal, who specialises in child psychology, about the significance of the scandal linked to the Ensar Foundation and the growing number of child abuse cases in Turkey.
GV: So far the government has been largely supportive of the Ensar Foundation. How, in your view, does that supportive position impact the lives of the children that have been abused?
CS: We have no idea about how many children were affected [by this scandal] or what kind of support is provided by authorities. The ministry states psychosocial support has been provided. We also do not know whether the families [affected by the alleged abuses] are supportive or hostile towards their children. The families are mostly low-income families that may require the financial support the foundation offers. That is why they might be choosing to keep silent on the issue. What is certain in this case is that the children are in the most difficult position […]
In these kinds of incidents a victim questions her/himself for a long time, tries to assess whether the abuse is her/his fault. Overcoming trauma starts at the moment [the person can say] “It was not my fault.” That’s why providing psychological support is very crucial. Children might think: “So, the foundation’s future is more valuable than ours”. They might regard themselves as guilty and worthless. That would cause them to feel the effects of the trauma more intensely.
A fair punishment for the rapist is critical for the children suffering from trauma.
GV: Since the Ensar Foundation scandal, we have seen more child abuse news, while statistics say abuses have increased by 50% in the last five years. Have crimes against children really grown in number, or are cases just getting more visibility?
CS: If there is research pointing to an increasing trend we need to analyze it and consider variables impacting these results. The biggest issue we face in abuse cases is efforts to cover them up. This especially relates to domestic abuses, where keeping silent is often the preferable thing to do, in consideration of the family order and family reputation. The abused is sacrificed for the sake of this family order. Since such cases are regular occurrences, there is a huge gap between reported and real numbers.
Although abuses seem to be increasing in recent times, [child abuse] has been a serious reality for many years. Recently it has drawn more attention since the government and the public is discussing the problem. If there is a 50% increase in reported cases, causes should be analyzed. For example, differences between cities and regions, any protective measures existing in cities where fewer cases are reported, and, most importantly, evaluating the aftermath of the cases. This would be beneficial for us in developing policies to deal with abuses.
GV: What kind of problems or traumas do abused children face later and can families do anything to protect their children from potential abuses?
CS: Any abused child experiences serious trauma […] That trauma is a catastrophic milestone for the child. We acquire negative cognitions about ourselves during periods of trauma: ‘I am worthless.’, ‘I am bad.’, ‘I am insecure.’ These are some of those feelings. Abused people have to receive psychological support in the aftermath to be able to overcome those cognitions.
Families have to teach their children how to protect their bodies and also need to respect their children’s borders themselves as well. The private sphere concept is critical. In case of violence, children need to protect their private sphere and react by shouting or screaming. Children need to be assured that in cases of violations they will be supported by their families because they may choose silence if they doubt they will be believed.