Update: On Wednesday, January 31, Florida’s Senate voted unanimously to end child marriage in the state, banning marriage for anyone under the age of 18. Sherry Johnson, who has worked for six years to change Florida marriage laws, watched the vote from the public gallery. As Florida law currently stands, individuals must be 18 to independently consent to marriage but can marry with parental consent starting at age 16, and there is no minimum marrying age in the event of a pregnancy. On Thursday, February 1, a House bill will make its final committee stop before being considered by the full chamber.
In the past year, U.S. child-marriage laws have generated a lot of attention—mostly because they still allow minors to marry at alarming rates, even as other developed nations have banned child marriage altogether. Sherry Johnson, herself a survivor of child marriage, has been instrumental in efforts to bring this issue to light and remove legislative loopholes that have children as young as 13 getting married, often with coercion from parents.
Johnson’s childhood was rife with abuse; she was raped repeatedly beginning at age eight and gave birth for the first time at age 10. When she was just 11, Johnson’s mother married her off to one of her rapists—a 20-year-old deacon at their church—after her mother publicly claimed Johnson was lying about having been raped. As more children came along, she was forced to drop out of school. Now, at age 58, she’s lobbying in Florida, the state that presided over her child marriage, to change legislation there.
State senators Lauren Book and Lizbeth Benacquisto—themselves abuse survivors—have cosponsored a bill that would make Florida one of only a few U.S. states to completely ban marriage for individuals under the age of 18. Only Virginia, Texas, and New York have signed child-marriage bans into law. Book has an idea as to why it has taken this long to get legislators on board with a ban.
“Until you put a face on this issue, people don’t understand,” Book says. “And Sherry has been that face. She has been able to destigmatize the process.”
Even in Florida, with Johnson there to tell her disturbing history with child marriage, there is some opposition from those who would like there to be exceptions to this rule— the kinds of loopholes available in other states.
In Maryland, girls as young as 15 can marry if they are pregnant, which is younger than the state’s age of consent for sex. New Hampshire law allows boys and girls as young as 14 and 13, respectively, to marry with judicial approval. As recently as 2013, a 13-year-old girl was married there.
According to a report from the Tahirih Justice Center, between 2004 and 2013, “nearly 4,500 children were married. Nearly 90 percent of them were girls, nearly 90 percent married adults, and some of those adults were decades older.”
Although Johnson’s own nightmare with child marriage began in 1971, she’s hard at work now to make sure no child is ever “failed” by the state of Florida, like she says she was.
“The hospital knew. The school knew. The courts knew,” Johnson says. “So plenty of people knew, but nothing was done. The whole state of Florida failed me. The ones who were supposed to protect me didn’t.”