Meet the Turkish municipality leader saving dozens of girls from child marriage

Meet the Turkish municipality leader saving dozens of girls from child marriage
7 min read
04 February, 2022

Dilek Demir was the first female candidate to run for the position of neighbourhood president in the city of Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey in 2014.

Breaking the taboos, the 49-year-old admits that her decision to run for the municipal elections in the male-dominated southeast of Turkey against six male candidates was challenging, or even impossible.

Managing the affairs of a Kurdish-majority district, with more than a 30 percent Syrian refugee population, seemed to be a daunting task. But Dilek was confident she would be the best candidate for the job.

"My service is like a mother's. I’m offering everything a mother does for her children, food for the hungry, medicine for the sick, diapers for the babies, jobs for the unemployed"

“During the election campaign period, unidentified people were tearing off my posters or sticking other posters on them. They even drew moustaches on my face on the campaign posters,” Dilek recalled. “They wanted to tell me: it’s a male’s job.”

Dilek said that her approach towards such provocations was not to respond to them. She believed that male candidates did not actually see her as a rival.

“In their eyes, I was never a rival. Here in the South East men do not see a woman as a rival. In a way, they see her always less than them, and unqualified to compete with them,” said Dilek.

However, the results proved the opposite.

A photo from Dilek's office [Marwa Kocak]
A collage of newspaper clippings from Dilek's office after her political upset [Marwa Koçak]

In 2014, Dilek won the election with 1,500 more votes than her six male opponents, and in 2019 she won with 2,500 more votes than the three male candidates running in the same elections in the neighbourhood of Bağlar Muradiye.

The district has a population of 13,300 people, including 8,800 Kurds and 4,500 Syrians, according to official figures by the municipality.

The responsibilities of the neighbourhood leader (known as Muhtar in Turkish) are centred on assisting residents with documentation related to local affairs, such as handling electric and water issues and acting as a bridge between the state authorities and the residents. However, Dilek had stressed that her services have exceeded the limits of the Muhtar job.

One of her aides was a homeless child that she supported until he became independent, eventually hiring him to work in her office.

Dilek sat in her office [Marwa Kocak]
Dilek in her office [Marwa Koçak]

Our interview has already been interrupted 10 times by locals seeking her assistance. One asked for help finding a job, another was a woman saying she can’t afford diapers for her baby.

My service is like a mother's. I’m offering everything a mother does for her children, food for the hungry, medicine for the sick, diapers for the babies, jobs for the unemployed,” she said with a smile. “For example, the woman who just left my office with her baby asked for a job for herself and a bed for the baby.

“I don’t belong to any party,” she said when asked about which party she supports. “I belong to the party of the people.”

Fighting against child marriage

In addition to the above services, Dilek said she felt she had a calling. Her purpose in life has been to stop child marriages once she assumes a position of authority.

“I decided years ago that if I am in a position of power I will not let any child marry,” said Dilek.

She herself was a victim of child marriage – her father forced her at the age of 14 to marry a 27-year-old man.

Live Story

“I was in preparatory school when my father decided that I must get married,” she recalls.

“Of course, I objected. I said no, I am still at school. I said I will finish school and become a police officer, but none of my pleas worked. My father did what he wanted.”

Dilek said that her father beat her with a plastic hose to force her to marry. She firstly resisted, then she surrendered.

“I got married. I was tortured and persecuted both before and after my marriage,” she said.

“That includes violence, insults, and all types of abuse that comes to your mind.

“I lived in my husband’s family home. My mother-in-law, father-in-law and two of my husband’s siblings lived with us. I saw all kinds of violence in one house. I was young. I couldn't even say a word. Whatever they said or asked, I did,” she remembers.

Neighbourhood of Bağlar-Muradiye [Marwa Kocak]
Dilek Demir's largely Kurdish neighbourhood of Bağlar-Muradiye [Marwa Koçak]

According to the Turkish National Statistical Institute (TÜİK), the number of girls in the 16-17 age group who got married in 2020 was 13,014- which is 18 times the number of boys who got married.

The statistics also show that the number of girls who got married in the 16-17 age group in Turkey has decreased by 71 percent in the last 10 years. Thus, the rate of child brides fell below three percent for the first time. It’s notable however that the official statistics don’t provide any data for girls who are under the age of 16.

Dilek’s marriage lasted seventeen years. She has been single for 18 years. She raised her children alone, and now they are university graduates. According to her, she raised them all to be resilient and to serve their community.

Dilek and her team [Marwa Kocak]
Dilek and her team [Marwa Koçak]

“On the third day of my work as a Muhtar, I hung this mailbox outside my office to receive letters from the people. I felt perhaps some people would be shy to ask for help. There are still people who don't know me, maybe they can't come and tell me their problems,” she told me, pointing to the mailbox outside her office.

Dilek says the letters she receives are mainly personal matters that people would be embarrassed to tell in person. For example, she says she rescued 80 children after these letters, 40 of them were young girls. “Some were facing the risk of forced child marriage in return for money, or as a favour for their male relatives in exchange for positions at work,” she says.

According to Dilek, the ages of girls she saved from forced marriage ranged between 13-15 years old. Out of the 80 letters, 40 were related to child marriage, 15 were cases of drug addiction that were helped treat, and the remaining were cases of child abuse, she says.

"Those who support child marriage hate me, and that is an honour for me"

“Twenty-five letters were cases of child abuse. They were abused by their families and relatives, and we saved them too,” she explained.

“There was one girl named Fatema, an 11-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her father. We saved her and her six siblings from their father. They are now safe in a social care charity.”

Dilek’s father was 63-years-old when he died from prostate cancer. Before his death, he asked for his daughter’s forgiveness.

“I forgave my father, but now I wish my father would rise up to see how strong I am and what I fulfilled."

On the reasons why a father would force his daughter to marry, Dilek explained: “Here, in this Kurdish society, they say that if the mother is educated, she will also educate her children. Education empowers mothers and enables them to demand their rights, and the children would also grow up stronger and more capable of defending their rights.”

Dilek's mailbox [Marwa Kocak]
Dilek's mailbox. The anonymity of the mailbox has been an invaluable source for those in child marriages, and those that need help [Marwa Koçak]

Dilek added that for example forcing a daughter to marry is a crime, but if a girl knows her legal rights she wouldn't accept it.

“The abusers want women to always remain silent and subservient,” she tells me.

Dilek said that saving girls from child marriages required lots of courage. She said her method was to threaten the family with legal consequences to avoid personal retaliation against her efforts.

“I went to these girls' families with my Muhtar ID prior to the weddings. They always denied the accusations when they saw me, asking how I was informed. I then confronted them with the planned date and time of the wedding. Then I threatened them that if they went ahead with their plans, the police would raid the weddings and arrest them.”


Dilek pointed out that she warned the families that the consequences of the marriage would include losing their daughters who would be kept at social care facilities, noting that they wouldn’t be able to see them till they reach the age of 18.

She also threatened them to arrest the father and the groom. Thus, eventually, they would be deterred from the practice to avoid ruining the lives of other family members.

Those who support child marriage hate me, and that is an honour for me.”

Dilek noted that she receives support from the Turkish government’s social care institutions, child welfare groups, municipalities, police, and the education ministry to support the girls' lives and education.

“I lived through this and I know the pain. There is no excuse for marrying off a child – this is not marriage, this is sexual abuse that amounts to rape and deserves the harshest punishment."

Marwa Koçak is a journalist and translator with an interest in politics and human rights in the Middle East. She speaks Arabic, English and Turkish. She has written for Middle East Eye, Al-Jazeera