Nothing is more devastating and robs a child of more than being sexually abused or molested in the foundational years of their life. Sherry Johnson experienced a shocking form of this abuse. She was forced to be married in 1971, at only 11 years old, to one of her rapists. Johnson stands tall using her story to make a difference, putting bills in the Florida legislature to end the marriage of any minor in Florida all together.
UPDATE, USA Today, March 10, 2018:
On Friday, Sherry Johnson was hailed as a hero after the Legislature passed a bill prohibiting marriage for anyone under 17.
State lawmakers have repeatedly cited Sherry Johnson as an inspiration to change the law. She watched in the House gallery as the bill passed the House on a 109-1 vote, then stood as representatives turned to face her and applauded.
“My heart is happy,” she said afterward. “My goal was to protect our children and I feel like my mission has been accomplished. This is not about me. I survived.”
The bill was a compromise between the House and Senate. The Senate originally passed a bill that banned the marriage of anyone under 18, but the House had wanted to carve out exceptions for some 16- and 17-year-olds when there’s a pregnancy.
The bill going to Republican Gov. Rick 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. Scott’s office said he will sign the bill.
Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with the consent of both sets of parents. If a pregnancy is involved, there’s no minimum age for marriage if a judge approves. A legislative staff analysis showed that between 2012 and 2016, 1,828 marriage licenses were issued in Florida to couples when at least one party was a minor. That includes a 13-year-old, seven 14-year-olds and 29 15-year-olds.
Supporters say changing the law will make sure no child is forced to marry a man who raped her, even if she becomes pregnant.
While the soon-to-be law wouldn’t have prevented Johnson’s rape or pregnancy, she wouldn’t have been forced to marry, and she said that could have prevented her from years of abuse.
“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 said. “I would have been a single mother and I think would have done well.”
Sherry Johnson was raped at 8, pregnant at 10 and forced to marry her abuser at age 11. After giving birth to more children, Johnson had to leave high school.
Yes, there are still child brides in America, a shocking fact for many. Statistics released by the Pew Research Center show that nearly 5 in every 1,000 15-17 year olds in the United States are married using loopholes in state laws to tie the knot. Unchained at Last found that between 2000 and 2010, more than 167,000 children were married. Most of these were cases where girls were marrying men 18 and older.
Here is an excerpt of Sherry Johnson’s story, detailing the devastation of this tragedy and rightly claiming that the state of Florida failed her:
For years, she kept silent. But now, her voice rings clear in chambers where the state’s laws are made. Her unrelenting public pleas to end child marriage are being heard.
After a lifetime of struggle, Johnson’s time has come. Finally.
On this winter morning, days into the 2018 legislative session, she is on her way to meet with a state senator co-sponsoring a bill to abolish child marriage in Florida. An identical version has been introduced in the House.
Johnson has spent the last five years lobbying lawmakers to stop the kind of abuse she suffered in her childhood.
An effort to ban child marriage under the age of 16 got traction in the Florida House in 2014 but went nowhere in the Senate. Since then, Johnson’s words have fallen on deaf ears. Doors have closed on her. Until recently.
As incredible as this may sound, Florida stands poised to become the first state in America to say no, unequivocally, to all marriages of minors.
Last year, Texas and Virginia enacted new laws limiting marriage to those 18 and over, but they made narrow exceptions for minors granted adult rights by the courts. The bills before the Florida legislature set 18 as the age for marriage and allow zero exceptions.
“I can’t relax right now,” Johnson says without hesitation. “I’m on a journey.”
‘I’m coming out’
I first spoke with Johnson a couple of months ago and was taken aback that child marriage was still a persistent problem in the United States.
Child marriages are legal in every US state because of a hodgepodge of exceptions that let minors get married with parental consent or judicial approval. A majority of these marriages are coerced and involve girls marrying adult men, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit group that tracks child marriage and aims to end gender-based violence.
The US State Department considers forced marriage a human rights abuse and, in the case of minors, a form of child abuse.
Few perceive America as a land where child marriage occurs; we think of developing nations like Afghanistan, Somalia and my homeland, India, which ignobly led the world with almost 27 million child marriages in 2017.
In Florida, Johnson has been instrumental. She has been vocal about the cruel story of her childhood. She hopes that one day soon, she might be able to stand next to the governor as he signs a child marriage ban into law.
That would be the vindication she has so earnestly sought.
There has been little opposition to the bill, though critics would still like Florida to make exceptions for minors who are voluntary participants or if their would-be spouses are in the military. Young servicemen and women sometimes want to marry their girlfriends or boyfriends before deploying on dangerous missions.
To that argument, Johnson retorts: If you are under 18, you cannot make any other legal decisions. You cannot buy a house, join the military, vote, rent a car or drink alcohol. How is it possible then to make a wise decision about entering into a legally binding partnership, one that is meant to be permanent?
“You know that song, ‘I’m Coming Out’ by Diana Ross?” she asks as we climb into her car. She starts belting out the lyrics: I want the world to know… There’s a new me coming out. And I just had to live. And I want to give. I’m completely positive.
She has ambitions to organize a conference for survivors of child abuse and child marriage, so they can express themselves in public, just like she did when she testified before lawmakers. “So they can get it all out,” she says.
She knows the importance of that firsthand.
A mother and wife by fifth grade
Each day before school, Johnson sought out her aunt for lunch money because Johnson’s mother worked as a substitute teacher and could barely make ends meet. Her aunt lived nearby in the same house as the bishop of their church, and one day, when Johnson was 8, he summoned her into his bedroom.
He forced her to lie on the bed, used petroleum jelly and penetrated her. He said nothing and then sent her on her way, blood dripping down her legs. Johnson ran to a bathroom to wash herself, but she was a child in the fourth grade. She could not understand what had happened.
After that, she was raped repeatedly by the bishop and also a church deacon. But when she tried to talk about it, no one believed her, not even her mother. It happened so frequently that Johnson accepted it as a part of growing up.
A doctor examined her and gave her the news: She was seven months pregnant. She did the math and knew it was the deacon’s baby.
Her mother stood up in church and told everyone her daughter was lying about being raped. She blamed Johnson for bringing shame on the family and sent her away to Miami with the bishop who had raped her. She was dropped off at Jackson Memorial Hospital and left there alone to have her baby.
On a February night in 1970, Johnson, only 10 years old, waited in a hospital hallway. She tried to imagine how a baby would come out of her body; no one had explained it to her. The stares burned through her; she felt like an oddity at an amusement park.
At 1:54 a.m., she gave birth to her first child. When she returned to Tampa, a child welfare worker came by to ask questions. She figures her elementary school must have tipped off the state.
The men who had raped her were adults and if the truth were to surface, they would face statutory rape charges. Instead, Johnson’s mother arranged for her daughter to marry one of her rapists, the deacon. She bought a white dress and veil for her daughter and accompanied bride and groom to the Hillsborough County courthouse in Tampa.
Johnson was 11. The man she was marrying was 20.
Johnson remembers sitting at a long table that seemed bigger than her house. She remembers her mother speaking with the judge. The judge refused to marry a girl so young, even though she had a baby.
But a month later, they tried again, this time in neighboring Pinellas County, where Johnson was allowed to sign on the dotted line. The judge was fully aware of her age; the license lists her date of birth.
She had not finished fifth grade yet on March 29, 1971, when she became a wife as well as a mother.
So began a life of burden, a life she was forced to accept.
Marriage before adulthood often has crushing consequences, undermining a girl’s access to health, education and economic opportunities. Girls and women in abusive relationships often suffer from low self-esteem and can fall into a self-destructive pattern of attracting more exploitation. Johnson was no exception.
At first, she returned to school while her mother looked after the baby. But her church prohibited the use of birth control, and Johnson had baby after baby. Girls her age played with baby dolls. Johnson found herself with real babies. Every day when she woke up, she cried.
It was her husband who should have been handcuffed, she thought. She felt she was handcuffed instead. She smiled on the outside, but inside she was always crying.
It had taken almost half her life for Johnson to find her voice.
For Johnson, forgiveness was the only way to move forward, the only way she could speak freely about what she had suffered so she could save others.
“The hospital knew. The school knew. The courts knew,” she says. “So plenty of people knew, but nothing was done. The whole state of Florida failed me.
“I feel my life was taken from me,” she says. “The ones who were supposed to protect me, didn’t.”
For all of Johnson’s heartbreaking yet empowering story, see here. It takes women like Sherry Johnson to use their stories as testimonies to change the broken parts in the system, and to protect future generations.