Florida’s Republican Lawmakers Are Unwilling To Ban Child Marriage

Florida resident Sherry Johnson, a survivor of child marriage turned advocate, speaking at the Forced Marriage Initiative at the Tahirih Justice Center, October2017.Screngrab/TahirihJusticeCenter/YouTube

Nearly 60,000 children ages 15-17 were married in the United States in 2014; in some cases, children are as young as 11.

Sherry Johnson is a woman on a mission. Her story is one that most cannot fathom - raped at age 8, pregnant at 10, and married to her 20-year-old rapist at 11. Now, after years of abuse, raising nine children and finding her way to healing, Johnson is determined to see child marriage banned in her home state of Florida.

But her work toward ending the practice has not yet met success. Florida lawmakers are wary of banning child marriage without making exceptions for minors who are voluntary participants or those wanting to marry before going into the military.

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.

Now Johnson has hooked up with state Senator Lauren Book, a child abuse survivor and activist herself, to work on getting their latest proposal through the legislature.

Book signed on as co-sponsor of the Senate child marriage bill introduced by Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican and rape survivor. The two women legislators embraced the #MeToo movement and have been vocal on sexual misconduct allegations clouding the Florida Legislature.

Florida is not alone in its quest to end child marriage. Every state in the U.S. carves out exceptions for allowing minors to marry, regardless of the state's actual legal marriage age - usually involving parental or judicial approval. This is despite the fact that the State Department considers forced child marriage a form of child abuse.

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.

Though child marriages represent a fraction of all US marriages, the numbers remain significant. The Pew Research Center found that in 2014, nearly 60,000 15- to 17-year-olds were in marriages.

Though it has been nearly fifty years since Johnson discovered the world of child marriage first hand, not enough has happened to prevent others from experiencing the same. Hence her quest for awareness and change.

"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."
In a few days, she will be back at the Capitol, making her rounds -- and hoping that the state that failed her will not fail again.