04.10.1412:15 PM ET

From Child Bride to Mayor

Forced to marry her cousin when she was 15, Berivan Elif Kilic was often beaten by her husband. Now she’s the mayor of her Turkish town.

Five years ago, Berivan Elif Kilic was trapped in a nightmare, suffering daily beatings by a husband whom she had been forced to marry when she was just a girl. Today, the former child bride is the freshly elected mayor of her hometown in southeastern Turkey and determined to fight for women’s rights.

“People believe me when I talk about domestic violence,” Kilic said in a telephone interview. “I was beaten up myself; I don’t have my knowledge from books.”

This week, Kilic, 33, officially became the mayor of Kocakoy, a farming town of 17,000 people in Turkey’s Kurdish region about 100 miles north of the border with Syria, after winning municipal elections there on March 30. A member of the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey’s main Kurdish party, Kilic shares the post of mayor with her male running mate, Affullah Kar, a former imam. Under BDP party rules, all top positions are split between a man and a woman, in an effort to promote women’s participation in politics.

At the age of 15, Kilic was taken out of school by her parents after four years of primary education and forced to marry a cousin. Although marrying inside the wider family is common in Turkey, the minimum age for marriage is 17. But thousands of girls below the legal age are married off in Islamic ceremonies not recognized as binding by the state.

Because the practice is illegal, there are no official figures about how many teenagers are married below 17. The Turkish Association of University Women, a pressure group, has put the number of child brides in Turkey at 181,000. The International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), a think tank in Ankara, said in a report in 2011 that one in three women in Turkey was below the legal age when she married.

Kilic said her mother had been married off at a similar age, so she did not think twice about having Berivan marry at 15. “Nobody is questioning why girls are being forced to marry at such a young age,” she said. Kilic became pregnant about a year after her wedding and later moved with her husband to Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s Kurdish region, where she had another child. Her two sons are 13 and 17 years old today.

At the age of 28, Kilic summoned up the courage to get a divorce. “I couldn’t sleep well for a year after I left my husband, because I was so afraid after all the beatings throughout the years,” she said. She moved back to her parents’ house in Kocakoy and started her political career in the BDP. One of her personal aims is to get a high school diploma and later study sociology or psychology.

One of her sons has a genetic disorder that has paralyzed him. Kilic said the disorder was a result of her having to marry a relative. She said she was looking for treatment for her son abroad.

But meanwhile, she has a town to run. Kilic is one of the first-ever female officials in Kocakoy’s municipality. “There has not been a single woman in the town’s administration so far,” she said. Since the March 30 elections, Kocakoy has Kilic as well as two female town council members.

Boosting women’s rights in Kocakoy will be a challenge, Kilic acknowledged. “Only a few years ago, a girl in this town was killed by her family because she had allegedly exchanged glances with a man,” Kilic said.

In so-called “honor killings” like this, a perceived stain on the family honor caused by an alleged disreputable act by a female family member is purged by murdering the offender. “Honor killings” are often committed by relatives of the victim. In the Kocakoy case, the girl’s brother was convicted of killing his sister but was released after three years in prison. “That is the sort of mentality we are fighting against,” Kilic said.

One of Kilic’s plans as mayor is to organize workshops in Kocakoy to inform women about their rights and to give some basic education to town women. “This is the biggest problem,” she said. “In our society, men can do anything they like. Inferiority of women has been accepted as a fate, but it isn’t. No human is worth more than another.”

In the deeply conservative society of rural south-east Anatolia, that message is likely to be rejected by some, but Kilic said she was optimistic about seeing quick results because her own life provided the perfect example of what a woman could do. Even men in the town had started to support her, she said.

“I am a role model,” Kilic said. Her experience was serving as a spark for women in Kocakoy. “There is a lot of hope here now,” she said. “One woman said I was like somebody from another world. But look at me: I have no education, no job, and yet I am the mayor now. Women have been attending my rallies in droves. They say: ‘If Berivan can do it, so can I.’”