By Burak Akinci
ANKARA, Jan. 25 (Xinhua) -- The Turkish government has launched an investigation into a scandal about an Istanbul hospital covering up dozens of pregnancies by underage girls last year.
The case, however, reflects only the tip of the iceberg of this controversial social phenomenon in Turkey.
The scandal was first reported last week by the Hurriyet Daily and has appalled civil society.
According to the daily, the hospital failed to fulfill their legal obligation to inform the authorities while treating 115 underage pregnancies.
The girls, 39 of whom were Syrians, came to the hospital from January to May last year.
The case was exposed by a whistleblower who was working at the hospital as a social worker and psychologist, it said.
Hospitals in Turkey are obliged to inform the authorities if children were conceived under the age of 18.
Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, Turkish Minister of Family and Social Affairs, has ordered an immediate investigation into the case.
The minister also revealed that a campaign would be initiated against child marriage, a long-standing issue that the country has grappled with, particularly in rural areas.
"It is the duty of us all to protect children from all kinds of bad things. We will follow this investigation till the end," said the ministry in a statement.
In the Kurdish-dominated southeastern Anatolia, where patriarchal and religious tradition still prevails, 10 percent of all the pregnant females are underage, according to an official report.
In the past 10 years, 17 adolescent girls have died during labor, most of whom were from southeastern provinces, according to the report.
"We cannot make our children suffer from this kind of trauma," said Gamze Akkus Ilgezdi, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).
Turkish Health Minister Ahmet Demircan also announced an investigation into the case, saying "we cannot allow the situation."
Admitting that this is a "huge problem," the minister said that these pregnant girls would surely go to illegal clinics for abortion if refused access to hospitals.
The scandal provoked outrage on social media, on which users formed a hashtag called "You cannot cover up the abuse of 115 children."
The children concerned will soon give testimonies to the police under psychological supervision, local press reported Wednesday.
The opposition and women's rights activists have repeatedly accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of failing to do enough to protect women, even as the females are particularly active in AKP, who rose to power mostly in popular and conservative communities.
In 2016, the government was forced to throw out a bill that could have pardoned men convicted of child-sex assault after a public outcry.
A recent survey carried out by the Women's Research Center at Ankara's Gazi University has shed light on the severe problem of child marriages in Turkey, with many girls forced into marriages to "cover up sexual abuse," daily Cumhuriyet reported recently.
The survey, based on interviews with 600 girls, including 300 pregnant ones, revealed that many of the young girls who were forced into marriage came from difficult background.
"Before getting married, 25 percent of the girls said they had no friends. Twenty percent said they have friends but are not permitted to meet them. Fifty percent have never gone to a cinema or theater. Sixty percent do not have access to the internet. Eleven percent say they do not share their problems with their families. The situation got even worse after their marriage," read the survey.
Among the girls, 25 percent were married to relatives. Some 75 percent said they decided to have a baby together with their husband.
"Child marriage, a violation of rights according to international agreements and many international laws, deprive girls of their education and prevent them from having a professional career. Complications during the pregnancy and delivery also risk the lives of girls," it added.
Head of the Turkish Women Associations Federation (TKDF) Canan Gullu told Xinhua such examples are "only the tip of the iceberg" and that her organization had estimated 500 cases of teenage pregnancy in the scandal of the Istanbul hospital concerned.
The president of this prominent and active women's right association pointed out that this scandal exposes "only one hospital of Istanbul" and that the situations she witnessed in major cities including Ankara are very similar.
"The government prefers to sweep it under the rug because they know it is common," she said.
Gullu explained that child pregnancies are particularly common among Syrian refugees in Turkey, where some 3.5 million Syrian nationals had fled from their war-torn country.
"We are undertaking research regarding the Syrian refugee camps to look into the problem. The report that we are currently working on will expose many sexual abuse incidents against refugees," she added.
According to official figures, the number of pregnancies under the age of 15 has been reduced from 2,000 annually over the past decade to less than 500 today, but a study by Ankara's Hacettepe University revealed that one in every four Turkish women between the age of 15 and 49 were married underage.