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If I am not mistaken image normalization in OpenCV is not limited to 8 bit data. See its description here. In your case call to function should look like:

normalize(src_image, dst_image, 0, 65535, NORM_MINMAX);

Anyway, if you are trying to improve contrast of image first try normalization and only if this is not working try equalization. Normalization is faster and less destructive.