ISTANBUL // A new prime-time television soap opera about an underage girl from a poor family in Anatolia who is married off to a 70-year-old man has put the issue of child brides on Turkey's political agenda.
Women's-rights activists hope the drama, "Life goes on", can help the fight against the widespread tradition of marrying off girls way under the legal minimum of 17.
Late on Friday, the third episode of "Life goes on", which premiered on November 18 on ATV, one of Turkey's biggest private channels, ended with the police arriving at the house of the character of Abbas Altindag, the old man who had taken the young girl as a second wife.
"It is a big problem for Turkey, but so far it has not been discussed much," Elvan Aydemir, an analyst at the centre for social studies at Ankara's International Strategic Research Organisation (Usak), told The National this week.
"This series can be very helpful because it is watched by millions."
"Life goes on" tells the story of 15-year-old Hayat, daughter of a poor potter in the region of Cappadocia. Hayat is a first name but also means "life" in Turkish.
After coming close to being killed by her brother for sullying her family's honour with a sexual affair with her boyfriend, Hayat becomes the second wife of Abbas Altindag, a rich businessman, who keeps her out of school after marrying her.
About 5.5 million women in Turkey have been forced to marry before 18, according to a report submitted to parliament 2009. Flying Broom, a women's-rights group that has been campaigning against underage marriages, said the number of child brides rises to almost half of all married women in some regions of the country.
Turkey's civil code bans marriages under the age of 17, but says judges can make an exception in special cases for 16-year olds. Researchers say many girls are married at an even younger age.
"There are economic reasons in many cases, because poor families can receive money from the bridegroom's family and because girls are often seen as a burden on the family," Ms Aydemir said. "Cultural reasons like traditional ideas of family honour are a factor as well," she added. "In some region, it is being seen as normal because everybody does it."
Contradictory laws have complicated efforts to fight the problem, Fatma Sahin, Turkey's minister for women's affairs, admitted during a recent hearing in parliament. "If the civil code defines children as everyone under 17, the child protection code puts the limit at 18 and the penal code says 15 years, this cannot go on," the minister said.
In this situation, a popular television soap opera could be very helpful to get politicians and society as a whole to look at the problem, Ms Aydemir said.
Although Life goes on could be criticised for presenting a serious social problem with high drama and many tearful scenes to attract as many viewers as possible, it was important that the series raised the issue in the first place, she said.
"Yes, it's very emotional, but it's good that people see it," she said.
The series is directed by Mahsun Kirmizigul, a prominent former singer from the Kurdish region who has made a name for himself as a serious film director in recent years.
Selen Dogan, of Flying Broom, said Mr Kirmizigul had asked her organisation for advice while preparing the soap. Some views of the group may find their way on to the screen as script writing and shooting for the series were still continuing, she said.
"We cannot reach everybody with our campaigns," Ms Dogan told The National. "But prime time television reaches millions. That is a chance. Hopefully, our message will come through."
It was very important the coming episodes of Life goes on showed the reality of the problem of child brides and did not treat the phenomenon as a mere backdrop for a television tear-jerker, Ms Dogan added. "Will [the issue of child brides] be presented as a fate that cannot be changed? Will the series say that you can't do anything against your family? Or will it say that women can take their fate in their own hands and that they are not alone?"
Ms Dogan said she had witnessed at first hand how deep-rooted the problem of child brides was in Turkey. As part of a recent campaign, members of Flying Broom visited 54 of Turkey's 81 provinces to talk to women and raise awareness about the issue. They presented their findings to parliament in Ankara in October, urging action to overcome the problem.
"Everywhere we went, local officials told us how bad the problem was," Ms Dogan said. "But when we asked them what they had done about it, the answer was: nothing."
The stories of some women the Flying Broom activists met during their campaign drive showed them that reality can sometimes be more dramatic than fiction written for television. A 40-year-old woman from the eastern city of Van told the Flying Broom delegation she was even younger than Hayat in Life goes on when she married.
"When I was 13, everyone else went to school, but I had to marry a 30-year-old man," the woman, who was not identified, told the activists, according to a statement posted on the group's website. "I had never seen him and never met him. I became his wife just because he was the son of a friend of my father's."