A Former Child Bride Fought To Change Child Marriage Laws In Florida — And Won

“My soul is happy that we’ll be able to save many, many, many children from being abused."

One sexual abuse survivor is being hailed as a hero in Florida. After a six-year fight, Sherry Johnson, a woman forced to marry her rapist when she was just 11, was victorious when the Florida legislature passed a bill outlawing marriage for anyone under 17.

Representatives celebrated her victory with applause as the bill passed on a 109-1 vote.

"My heart is happy," she told The Associated Press after the vote. "My goal was to protect our children and I feel like my mission has been accomplished."

Johnson was just 9 years old when a church deacon raped and impregnated her in the early 70s. She was forced to marry him two years later and bore five more children with him before fleeing the marriage several years later. 

Fast-forward to today and 3,161 children – 72 under the age of 16 – were married in Florida between 2010 and 2016, with some marrying spouses at least twice their age, according to the state Department of Health statistics, reports News-Press.  

Currently, there is no minimum age for marriage in Florida if pregnancy is involved and the union is approved by a judge. But, that will soon change when Republican Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill, which his office confirmed will happen.

While people will still be able marry at the age of 17 in the state, pregnancy will no longer be a factor, minors will still need parental consent, and their partner can't be more than two years older.

Johnson's success in Florida ensures that no other little girl will be forced to marry an adult like she did, pregnant or not. The Florida woman, who was never able to pursue an education, said that had a law been in place 47 years ago to protect her when she was just a child, she wouldn't have endured years of abuse at the hands of her husband and other partners after she left the marriage.    

"It would have changed my life by not allowing me to get married, to continue to have children, to continue to have my downfall," she told reporters, including Elizabeth Koh at The Miami Herald. "I would have been a single mother and I think would have done well."

While a large majority of the House agreed with the changes to the law, one representative did not: Rep. George Moraitis, who cast the lone dissenting vote.

For Johnson, getting married wasn't a choice, it was a decision supported by her family and the church as a way to absolve the rape and avoid a child welfare investigation, and it changed the course of her life forever. But she wasn't going to sit back and continue allowing what happened to her happen to other children.  

"My soul is happy that we'll be able to save many, many, many children from being abused," Johnson told KWCH Channel 12. "It takes one person to actually come out and speak against it, but there are many others that actually have experienced it."

She also told The Miami Herald that her work isn't finished.

"My mission is for the world, for the children all over the world," she told The Miami Herald. "It's not just Florida. … It's for the children everywhere."

Cover image via Shutterstock /  Svitlana Sokolova.

(H/T: USA Today)

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