At just 11 years of age, a woman from Florida - Sherry Johnson found out one day that she was about to get married to a 20-year-old member of the church who had raped her.
She had become pregnant, and as child welfare authorities started to investigate, her family and church officials decided to avoid a messy criminal case by protecting the rapist and forcing her to marry him.
“My mom asked me if I wanted to get married, and I said, ‘I don’t know, what is marriage, how do I act like a wife?” Johnson told The New York Times. She said, “Well, I guess you’re just going to get married.”
So, she was married to a government clerk in Tampa, Florida. The clerk issued a marriage license which lists her birthdate, as a result, the officials were able to perceive her age.
Like most underage marriages, this marriage didn’t work out and eventually dissolved. But, her marriage kept her from attending elementary school regularly. “It was a terrible life,” she said. Today she is campaigning for a state law to curb underage marriages, part of a nationwide movement to end child marriage in America. Meanwhile, children 16 and under are still being married in Florida at a rate of one every few days.
A search by a group called ‘Unchained at Last’, with available marriage license data, suggests that 12-year-old girls married in Alaska, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Whereas other states were in the category of ‘14 and younger’.
Although the group was unable to get information for the other states, it extrapolated that in the entire country, there were almost 250,000 child marriages between 2000 and 2010. Backing this estimate, the US Census Bureau stated that in 2014, at least 57,800 Americans between the ages 15 to 17 were reported being in marriages.
Arkansas, Idaho, and Kentucky were among the states with the highest rates of child marriages. Although there has been a gradual fall in the number of child marriages, every state in the US still allows underage girls to marry, typically with the consent of parents, judge or both. Out of fifty, twenty-seven states do not even set a minimum age by statute.
Just this month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie rejected a legislation that would have made the state the first in the country to ban marriages of people under 18. On the other hand, New York legislators are considering a bill backed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to raise the age to 17, from the current 14.
Sherry Johnson, the former 11-year-old bride is now fighting for Florida to set a minimum marriage age. Recounting her years, she said that she missed school and remembered spending her days changing diapers, arguing with her husband and struggling with expenses. She ended up with pregnancy after pregnancy, nine children in all, while her husband repeatedly kept on abandoning her.
“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 added.
Johnson later wrote a book about her story, called “Forgiving the Unforgivable.”
Information source: The New York Times