Florida Lawmakers Pass Ban On Child Marriage

by Jerriann Sullivan
Image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Woman forced to marry her rapist at age 11 helps put through ban on child marriage

Sherry Johnson’s rapist started attacking her when she was eight years old. By the time she was 10, she was pregnant with her attacker’s child, and when Johnson was 11, she was forced to marry him. She’s spent the last six years fighting to make sure no child goes through the same thing. Thanks to her hard work, Florida just passed a law banning child marriages.

Johnson’s rapist was a church deacon. When her church found out about his crimes, they pressured her mom to let her daughter marry the man, which a judge approved. The abuse continued, and Johnson gave birth to five more kids before she escaped the marriage. She wasn’t able to attend school and faced many struggles as her life was cut short at age 11. While the new law Florida passed wouldn’t have erased Johnson’s rape or pregnancy, it would have prevented the abuse from continuing.

“It would have changed my life by not allowing me to get married, to continue to have children, to continue to have my downfall,” Johnson told the Associated Press. “I would have been a single mother and I think would have done well.”

Child marriages are a problem Americans like to think happens in other countries. But between 2000 and 2015, more than 200,000 kids (mostly girls) were married to male adults, NPR reported. In Florida, between 2012 and 2016, 1,828 marriage licenses were given to couples where at least one person was a minor, the AP reported. Those cases include a 13-year-old, seven 14-year-olds, and 29 15-year-olds. In some situations, female children were married to men more than twice their age. It’s absurd that we let our justice system allow child abusers to marry their victims. The new law that Johnson worked tirelessly to pass will prevent some of these situations.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has already agreed to sign the law Johnson forced the legislature to consider. The bill going to Scott would set limits on the marriage of 17-year-olds. While pregnancy won’t be a factor, anyone marrying a 17-year-old couldn’t be more than two years older and minors would need parental consent. Critics of child marriage – which, for the record, should be all of us – argue that Florida’s new law still leaves 17-year-olds unprotected as some teens are forced into marriage by their parents. “The bill as is would limit child marriage,” Fraidy Reiss explained. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s certainly not a victory.”

In the U.S. you can’t make most legal decisions until you’re 18 or older. You can’t rent a car, drink alcohol, buy a house, or vote so why should you be able to get married?

While there is still progress to be made to end child marriages, especially in other states across America, Johnson is happy with the changes she made possible in Florida. “My heart is happy,” she said after the vote. “My goal was to protect our children and I feel like my mission has been accomplished. This is not about me. I survived.”