At only 11 years old, Sherry Johnson was forced to marry her rapist, a man who had impregnated her. This wasn't in some far-flung corner of the Third World – it was in Florida. Sherry Johnson' story may be shocking, but she is far from alone in her ordeal.
Child marriage in the US is a tradition as old as the nation itself. As barbaric and antiquated as it may sound, thousands of young girls (and some boys) are forced into marriages by their parents every year. The marriage could be for religious or cultural reasons, to cover up sexual abuse, or some combination of the three, like in Johnson's case. The majority of these unions are also between girls and much older men.
So you might ask, what states allow child marriage? The answer: all of them. While some have stricter laws than others, the brutal truth is that with a parent's permission, children can still get married in every single state in the United States – even if they are below the age of sexual consent.
The legacy of underaged marriage leaves behind broken childhoods, heartbreaking stories of abuse, and a slow and steady fight to change the laws to help children, not hurt them.
11-Year-Old Sherry Johnson Was Forced To Marry Her Rapist
Sherry Johnson was forced to marry her rapist at 11 — and now her story is helping to ban child marriage in Florida pic.twitter.com/oByyFbGtTK— NowThis (@nowthisnews) February 5, 2018
At only nine years old, Sherry Johnson was raped by a man from her church – a deacon twice her age. When it was discovered that she was pregnant, child welfare authorities began to get concerned and started asking questions.
Sherry's parents, along with leaders in her church, decided that their reputations were more important than the little girl they were supposed to protect. They wanted to "avoid a messy criminal case," so her mother informed her that she had to marry the 20-year-old who had taken advantage of her. The idea was that they would appear to be a "normal family" to the state officials; she gave birth to her daughter at 10 and was married at 11. She had a total of nine children with her rapist before she was able to divorce him.
Every State In America Still Allows Underage Children To Get Married – But They Can't Sign Their Own Divorce Papers
Granted, there are some age restrictions for marriage in many states. For example, in New Hampshire, boys can get married at 14, and girls as young as 13 can wed, whereas some states – like Texas, California, and Maine (among otheres) – have no age floor. However, child marriage is technically legal in every single American state. Whether it is done through parental permission, judge approval, or as a result of special circumstances, children under the age of 18 get married in every state, every single year.
There are many problems with allowing this to happen. One of them is that minors cannot sign legal documents, which includes filing for divorce. They don't have true control over their own lives and are often at the mercy of their partners. They are also frequently taken out of school, and have their childhood essentially stolen from them.
Some Underage Marriages Are Consensual, But Others Are Defined By Rape And Abuse
Sherry Johnson has been quoted as saying, "They forced me to marry him to cover up the scandal. Instead of putting the handcuffs on him and sending him to prison, they put the handcuffs on me and imprisoned me in a marriage."
While some underage marriages are consensual (for example, a 17-year-old girl marrying an 18-year-old man who is about to be deployed with the army), many are not. For young girls, it is often their parents who are forcing them into a marriage, whether for religious, social, or legal reasons. According to Unchained at Last director Fraidy Reiss, girls in these forced marriages are three times more likely to experience domestic violence.
In 2017, Chris Christie Blocked A Law That Would Raise New Jersey's Legal Marriage Age To 18
In 2017, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill that would have made them the first state to fully ban marriage for teens under the age of 18, but Governor Chris Christie shot it down. He used his veto power to kill the new law, stating that:
Protecting the well-being, dignity, and freedom of minors is vital, but the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill's proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state.
Christie repeatedly referenced religious practices as a reason that teen marriage should stay legal. He also stated that if 16 year olds could legally have sex and get abortions without the knowledge of their parents, they should be able to get married as well.