Sherry Johnson was 11 years old when she was forced to marry her rapist after giving birth to his child at 10. Sherry had five more children with her rapist before she divorced him at 17.
Between 2000 and 2015, over 260,000 minors were legally married in the United States. In Florida, where Sherry was married, the age of marriage is 18, but if you’re pregnant or have a child, a judge in Florida can approve a marriage at any age to a man of any age. You’ve read correctly. Any age.
“I never played with dolls, I had a real doll. I had to feed my children real food, change real diapers.
I survived being raped at age 8 by the church bishop and then by my mom’s husband. When I was 9, I was raped again, this time by the deacon of the church. I got pregnant. At 9 I gave birth to my daughter at 10— alone.
And then when authorities investigated, I was forced to marry my rapist to cover up my own rape. So, instead of handcuffing him for what he did, they handcuffed me by putting me, an 11-year-old, in a wedding dress.”
In 2012, at the age of 52 and spurred with a desire to make sure what happened would not happen to another child, Sherry advocated for change. She walked the legislature floors to change the laws in Florida. In 2013 she published “Forgiving the Unforgivable,” which captures the nightmare she was subjected to and the textbook outcomes for girls who are made mothers and brides without their consent: years of abuse, poverty and mental bondage.
Sherry also started SVon Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on eradicating Child Marriage across the nation and changing laws and policy at all governmental levels to address the gaps in the legal system that perpetuate it. SVon Foundation brings awareness, advocacy and support for victims of sexual abuse and child marriage.
Sherry’s story is hard to read but it is much harder to live through. In the next few weeks, we will share two stories of “child marriage” from across the world, including more from Sherry and Asseel* from Syria.
Around the globe, 28 girls are married off every minute. In the U.S., there are 48 states where “child marriage” is legal because of exceptions that allow minors to get married with parental consent or judicial approval. Most of these marriages are coerced and involve girls marrying adult men much older.
In March 2018, after 6 years of relentlessly politicking for change, Sherry successfully influenced State lawmakers to close the legal loophole that allowed child marriage to be recognized by the law with the passing of State Bill #140. This new legislation is an important milestone in the fight to end child marriage in the U.S.
We need more laws that protect girls from “child marriage” – no exception. Equality Now works tirelessly with our partners, like Svon Foundation, to ensure these laws exist and that every woman is equal in law and life.
Join us to end “child marriage”. This practice must stop. Full stop.
Michelle Anderson got pregnant at age 16. Her community was pressuring her family to marry her off to her 19-year-old boyfriend. She didn’t think she had the right to say no to the marriage, which made it hard enough, but what she didn’t know was that he had PTSD from his time in the Army, so at 16 years old Michelle had to deal both with a new baby and a husband with serious mental health and anger issues. They had both been raised in a conservative Christian community where a woman’s role was to serve and make her husband happy, so she blamed herself for his behaviour. Michelle says:
“People want to blame other countries and cultures for child marriage, but it’s happening across America. It happened to me and I am right here. The fact is that I was coerced to get married to ‘do the right thing’, to save my parent’s reputation, to not be the whore in town, to make me honourable woman.”
“When I got married I was like a lamb to slaughter. It was the job of the adults in my life to love and protect me but they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t know any better, but I’m going to tell my story so that people do know better and there are no more excuses. They stole my voice but now I have it back and I am going to use it over and over and over until child marriage in America is no longer legal.”
Michelle’s full story will be available soon, so stay tuned.