Sherry Johnson was in elementary school when her parents told her she had to marry the man who raped her.
According to the New York Times, her 20-year-old husband was a member of her Pentecostal church. Sadly, he was not the first man to take advantage of her.
She told the Times that she was previously raped by a minister and a parishioner within her church — and she delivered her first child at the age of 10.
When she became pregnant for the second time, at age 11, child welfare services started asking questions. Her parents married her off in order to avoid a criminal case.
In the state of Florida, according to the state legislature, minors under the age of 18 can marry with parental consent. There’s also a special exception to the age limit for cases involving pregnancy.
Officials can also choose to deny a wedding based on age. For instance, a government clerk in Tampa first refused Johnson’s marriage. But it didn’t stop the marriage. Johnson’s parents took her to a neighboring county to get the license.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a majority of the states in the U.S. allow special exceptions for children to marry under the age of 18.
Heather Barr, a senior researcher at HRW, wrote on the organization’s blog that allowing for exceptions is harmful to young girls:
Such a law is out of step with the rest of the world. Even in countries with high rates of child marriage, there is usually recognition that marriage under age 18 is harmful, and an effort to prevent these marriages, beginning with reforming the law.
In an interview with Independent Journal Review, Barr said she was disturbed when she learned about Johnson’s story, but she wasn’t surprised:
“It’s extraordinary that it’s been such a well-kept secret that child marriage is legal — and taking place — in every state in the U.S. Countries around the world have committed to ending child marriage by 2030, and are taking steps toward that goal, but the U.S. is way behind.”
She noted that child marriage can have a long-lasting impact on a family and the following generation:
“Child marriage is deeply harmful to children, no matter where it happens — Bangladesh, Nigeria, or Florida. Married children are more likely to drop out of education, live in poverty, suffer serious health consequences, and be victims of domestic violence. It is urgent that every state pass legislation to protect children by ending child marriage.”
Daniela Ligiero, chief executive officer for Together for Girls, works to end violence against women in countries around the world.
Her organization is working to collect more data to determine exactly how many children are impacted by early marriage.
She noted that many child marriages like Johnson’s are inextricably linked to abuse, sexual assault, and violence:
“Violence against girls is a global epidemic with devastating consequences. We can break this cycle of violence, but not without addressing child marriage. Around the world, including here in the U.S., we see that child marriage is a gross human rights violation that limits educational attainment and economic empowerment, and puts girls at increased risk for physical, emotional, and sexual violence.”
A non-profit organization called Unchained at Last estimates that 248,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010.
According to a study conducted by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), an estimated 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 around the world. But many more suffer the impacts of child marriage for years after the marriage ends.
The Washington Examiner reports that those who oppose raising the minimum age for marriage are often concerned about the rise in out of wedlock births. Another argument is that most underage weddings are consensual, though data to prove consent would be difficult to obtain.
Johnson’s marriage didn’t last. Her education suffered as a result of the marriage. She had to put her school on hold as she worked to raise her family.
She told the Times that her experience with child marriage still haunts her to this day:
“You can’t get a job, you can’t get a car, you can’t get a license, you can’t sign a lease. So, why allow someone to marry when they’re still so young?”
Johnson now advocates ending the practice of child marriage in the state of Florida.
Editor’s Note: This article was edited after publication.