A scrawny 11-year-old, Sherry Johnson found out one day that she was about to be married to a 20-year-old member of her church who had raped her.
It was forced on her since she had become pregnant and child welfare authorities were investigating about it. So a mutual decision was made by the church and her family that to avoid a criminal case the girl must be married to her rapist.
“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 remembers today, many years later.
“She said, ‘Well, I guess you’re just going to get married.’”
The wedding party went to nearby Pinellas County, where the clerk issued a marriage license since government clerk in Tampa, Fla., refused to marry an 11-year-old, even though this was legal in the state. Even the officials were aware of her age because the birth date was mentioned in the certificate.
Even though the marriage didn’t last but it did interrupt Johnson’s attendance at elementary school. 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.
You must be thinking: “Child marriage? That’s what happens in Bangladesh or Tanzania, not America!”
In fact, more than 167,000 young people age 17 and under married in 38 states between 2000 and 2010, according to a search of available marriage license data by a group called Unchained at Last, which aims to ban child marriage.
There were almost 250,000 child marriages between 2000 and 2010. Some backing for that estimate comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, which says that at least 57,800 Americans age 15 to 17 reported being in marriages in 2014.
A great majority of the child marriages involve girls and adult men. Such a sexual relationship would often violate statutory rape laws, but marriage sometimes makes it legal.
Johnson, the former 11-year-old unwitting bride who is now fighting for Florida to set a minimum marriage age (there is none now), says that her family attended a conservative Pentecostal church and that other girls of a similar age periodically also married. Often, she says, this was to hide rapes by church elders. She says she was raped by both a minister and a parishioner and gave birth to a daughter when she was just 10 (the birth certificate confirms that). A judge approved the marriage to end the rape investigation, she says, telling her, “What we want is for you to get married.”
“They took the handcuffs from handcuffing him,”
she says, referring to the risk he faced of arrest for rape,
“to handcuffing me, by marrying me without me knowing what I was doing.”
“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?”
Those are the reasons marriages for even 17-year-olds are problematic, according to Fraidy Reiss, who founded Unchained at Last to fight forced marriage and child marriage. Bullied by their parents into marriage, she says, girls may feel powerless and fearful of telling a judge that they don’t want to wed. Some judges and clerks even intervene on behalf of young girls; others do not. Reiss says one clerk told a 16-year-old bride: “Don’t cry. This is supposed to be the happiest day of your life.”
Is it really the happiest day of their life???
What do you think??