Survivor Stories

Sherry

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

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.

Photo by  Dana Fontaine

Dawn

My father and stepmother decided to move to Texas and set up a business. My stepmother wanted me to stay behind and finish school so she arranged for a family friend to move into our house in California to be my nanny.

Before he moved in I saw him like a fun uncle, enthusiastic and energetic. Looking back I can see how he was getting closer and closer to me emotionally and physically.

He was about 30 years old and I was 11 when he was first sexually abusive to me. I remember him saying, “If your parents cared they would be here and they are not, I am and I love you.” I felt violated and confused.

I became very sick, sleeping and vomiting. My abuser took me to a doctors and that is when I found out I was pregnant. I was 13 years old, I was so young. At that age you don’t have the bandwidth to comprehend this huge adult responsibility. I remember feeling terrified, afraid and wanting to keep the peace.

You cannot be a pregnant teenager and unwed, it was a disgrace. From my stepmother’s perspective, it was my fault and I had brought it on myself. She told me, “you can’t stay here pregnant and you’re not living with us and the baby, your only option is to marry him”.

In the beginning of our marriage, he wanted to make it work so I did not feel afraid but as things went on it became unsafe. He was becoming controlling, possessive and keeping tabs on everything I was doing.

With the title wife, I felt that I had to be submissive. It was never a question of saying no, if he came to me I submitted. It wasn’t until I had another baby on the way, I’d turned 15 and was becoming more mature and connected to my body, that I saw how emotionally and mentally it was braking me, the abuse was not okay.

When I went to court to fight against my ex-husband having access to my children, I tried to address the rape and abuse I’d experienced and the answer from the judge was, “I am sorry, you were married”. The justice system failed me. By getting married, my abuser was saved from being charged with statutory rape. It was a disgrace.

It’s heart-breaking that the same thing that happened to me thirty years ago is still happening at alarming rates. Child marriage in America isn’t one in a million, it’s terrifying that it is happening left and right.

 

I am furious that the law is allowing rapists to escape punishment. Marriage should never be used to cover up rape and it should not protect the abuser from being accountable for his actions. It is literally their free pass to serving any time for their crime.

It was really scary to share my story publicly for the first time but I kept reminding myself why am I doing this – to bring awareness. When people hear what I went through they are surprised because they think it only happens in other countries, not here in America. This is my name, my face, and this is what happened. It is really important to put a face and name to the story so people can connect.

I am incredibly excited about the launch of the coalition and its mind blowing to have all these organisations coming together. I am thrilled to be a part of it, to be advocating and bringing awareness. We will start firing our ammunition, which will be our voice!