The U.S. State Department considers child marriage a human rights abuse. Still, the practice continues not just in faraway places, but in the state of Florida. A coalition is walking the halls of the state capitol to change that.
For Sherry Johnson, the rapes started at age eight. When a member of her church got her pregnant, Johnson’s mother forced her to marry him. She was 11. He was 20.
A county clerk in Tampa wouldn’t issue the couple a license. So they went to neighboring Pinellas County. She says the marriage derailed her life.
“I was home, home crying, not knowing what to do with my life. Because now I’m kicked out of school. I can’t go to work. I’ve got three children," she said. "What do you do? What do you do?”
And at such a young age, Johnson had virtually no chance at independence.
“I remember applying for apartments but they told me, you’re not old enough. You can’t get an apartment. I would apply for jobs. I remember getting the classified ads and applying for jobs, calling people and telling them I would like to work. The moment they ask me my age, it was a no. An automatic no,” she said.
The reason Johnson’s forced marriage could even happen is because of a loophole in Florida law. Generally, people younger than 18 can’t get married. But there are exceptions, says Fraidy Reiss, head of the forced marriage support organization Unchained At Last.
“First of all, parental consent. If a parent signs a marriage license application, a child aged 16 or 17 can marry in Florida,” Reiss said.
There’s also a judicial review option, for those who have a child.
“A child can marry if she is pregnant or if she or he already has a baby,” Reiss said.
Boynton Beach Democratic Representative Lori Berman says many of these marriages are forced or coerced. She's among a group of Democrats and Republicans pushing the effort forward in the Florida Capitol.
“Just because you raised a child doesn’t mean you should be able to commit them to an adult relationship or a legally binding contract,” Berman said.
According to the Bureau of Vital Statistics, Florida counties issued 1,828 marriage licenses to minors between 2012 and 2016. 132 of those licenses went to couples where both were minors. That means in 93% percent of cases, a minor was marrying an adult. Reiss says, just as Sherry Johnson experienced, there are very few options for children in this situation.
“Helping a child leave home is a crime here in Florida. Domestic violence shelters are not allowed to take in children before their 18th birthday. Contracts with children are voidable meaning a retainer agreement which a child is pretty much worthless. And bringing a legal action in his or her own name is pretty much worthless,” Reiss said.
When she was 17, Johnson’s rapist was imprisoned for not paying child support for their 6 children. She was finally able to get a divorce, and she says she’s still recovering.
Reiss says the experience leads to lifelong impacts.
“Right here in the United States, a woman who was married at or before age 18 faces a 23% greater risk of heart attack, cancer, diabetes, and stroke, and an increased risk of nearly every psychiatric disorder that’s ever been identified. And these serious health consequences come because of the forfeited education and in the increased risk of poverty,” Reiss said.
Heather Barr researches child marriage around the world for Human Rights Watch.
“I’ve interviewed hundreds of victims of child marriage myself and the harms are remarkably consistent, the harms that Fraidy described. It doesn’t really matter if you live in Bangladesh or in Zimbabwe or in Tampa,” Barr said.
Proponents of the ban on child marriage say there’s virtually no opposition. But Johnson says that’s not the case. She lobbied state lawmakers back in the 2014 session.
“People [weren't] aware what was going on. They would debate with me and saying it didn’t happen, that’s not true, the law does not allow a child to be married. And I have to correct them. That is not true! Because I am a survivor of that. So I know that that law is still there,” Johnson recalled.
The bill never made it out of the committee process in either chamber.
“Some don’t want to know. They close their eyes to it,” Johnson said.
But this year, Johnson says the issue of child marriage in Florida is getting more attention than before. She hopes lawmakers will continue to open their eyes to survivors like her.