She Was Forced To Marry At Age 11. Now She's Fighting To End Child Marriage In Florida.

"I smile from within to know that children will not have to face what I’ve been through."

Believe it or not, in 2018, child marriage is still a major problem in America. According to The New York Times, every state permits underage girls to tie the knot, typically with the consent of parents, a judge, or both, and 27 states don't even have a minimum age by statute. One of the loudest advocates for state and federals laws to change is activist Sherry Johnson. Johnson, now 58, was forced to marry a church deacon at age 11 after he raped and impregnated her.

Living in Florida at the time, Johnson recalled first being raped by the deacon when she was just nine, and giving birth about a year later. The wedding, which was supported by Johnson's family and the church, was seen as a way to absolve the rape and avoid an investigation from child welfare authorities. 

"It was forced on me," she told the Times. In fact, Johnson had no choice but to leave school and went on to give birth to eight additional children, despite the fact that the deacon would periodically abandon her. 

"They took the handcuffs from handcuffing him," she explained to the Times, referring to the risk he faced of being arrested for rape, "to handcuffing me, by marrying me without me knowing what I was doing."

Added Johnson, "You can't get a job, you can't get a car, you can't get a license, you can't sign a lease, so why allow someone to marry when they're still so young?"

And yet, Johnson's case is hardly an anomaly. Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to helping women and girls leave or avoid arranged/forced marriages and rebuild their lives, reports upwards of 167,000 young people age 17 and under married in 38 states between 2000 and 2010. Factoring in the additional 12 states (which data was not available for), the organization estimates that 250,000 child marriages occurred within that ten-year time frame in the U.S.

For roughly five years, Sherry Johnson has been sharing her experience as a young bride to fight for an end to child marriage in Florida. Though the Sunshine State doesn't allow anyone under the age of 18 to independently consent to marriage, Time reports 16- and 17-year-olds may marry with the permission of both children's parents. However, if there's a pregnancy involved, a troubling loophole exists so that there is no minimum age for marriage so long as a judge approves the marriage license.

Last month, however, Johnson's story inspired lawmakers in the Florida Senate to unanimously pass a bill that bans marriage before 18 years old with no loopholes, and she was in the gallery to witness the first step in changing the law. The bill now must pass through the House before being voted on by the full chamber.

"To be able to talk about it, to know that there's something that's being done about it … it makes my heart happy," Johnson told Time as the bill passed. "I smile from within to know that children will not have to face what I've been through."

Florida State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the legislation's sponsor, called Johnson "the reason for this bill."

As Johnson concluded to CBS News, "We're responsible for our children and we should protect them."

Cover image via Shutterstock /  MNStudio.

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