Sherry Johnson’s childhood was a never ending nightmare that no child should have to bear.
At age 10, Johnson was raped and impregnated, then forced to marry her rapist at just 11 years old.
Johnson, 57, sat down with 10News Reporter Liz Crawford to talk about how in 1971, she was a child bride in Florida.
Johnson explained that she moved to Tampa at age 5 with her mom, who was following their church’s expansion.
They lived in an apartment attached to her church in Tampa, where the deacon had keys. And when he would wander and use those keys he would end up in her room Johnson recalls.
Johnson was repeatedly raped and she never uttered one single word to anybody. But it didn’t take long for the secret to be exposed.
During a conversation with her mom one day after school, “I remember being in the car, I remember that white Dodge car, and it had blue interior, and she said, ‘You fixing to have a baby.’”
Johnson didn’t know what being pregnant meant. And with that, her mother sent her to Miami to have the baby in 1970.
Johnson remembered adults around her talking about her marrying her attacker.
“If we’re going to still have sex, then we have to get married. Well, who said we were going to continue to have sex? I didn’t know anything about that, but I remember them talking about it,” explained Johnson.
Initially, court officials in Hillsborough County refused to issue a marriage license, but Johnson’s mom took her to Pinellas County and that judge signed off. And on March 19, 1971, at the courthouse in Clearwater, Sherry Johnson was legally married to her rapist.
She was 11 and her groom was 20 years old.
Her life as a child bride became hell on earth. Her marriage was a living hell.
“We didn’t really talk that much, I was there for sex only. We didn’t have conversations.”
“It was a terrible life,” Johnson recalls, recounting her years as a child raising children. She missed school and remembers spending her days changing diapers, arguing with her husband and struggling to pay expenses. She ended up with pregnancy after pregnancy nine children in all, while her husband periodically abandoned her.
“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.”
In 1978, Johnson filed for divorce. She was 18 years old.
Life is different for Johnson now. She went through years of therapy and wrote a book, but there’s no happy ending here.
The law that allowed her to get married at age 11 still exists today.
Johnson is hoping that in telling her story the law will be changed.
“That’s why I won’t stop. That’s why I’m going to do everything I possibly can that no one has to go through this. It’s not fair. It’s not right and we shouldn’t allow it to happen.”
The current law in Florida allows underage girls to get married when a child or pregnancy is involved. In those cases, it’s up to the judge’s discretion to issue a marriage license regardless of age.
Fraidy Reiss, who founded Unchained at Last, a group to help fight forced marriage and child marriage, says many girls are bullied by their parents into marriage. The girls may feel powerless and fearful of telling a judge that they don’t want to wed. If they try to flee an abusive marriage, they are turned away from shelters and may be treated as simple runaways.
Some judges and clerks 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.”
“For almost all of them,” says Reiss, “marriage means rape on their wedding night and thereafter.”
Reiss, 42, says she was forced into a marriage at age 19 by her ultra Orthodox Jewish family.
Lyndsy Duet, a school counselor in Texas was forced into a marriage at 17 after enduring a series of rapes beginning when she was 14, by a young man her conservative Christian family had taken into the house.
“He asked my parents if he could marry me,” Duet remembers. “My mom was crying, she was so happy.”
They were married eight years before she fled her violent marriage. Once, her husband threatened her with a chain saw, and it was only when she went to college on her own, that she was able to escape.
Just recently, the governors of Texas and New York signed bills to end most child marriage.
In New York, the bill still allows 17 year olds to marry with judicial review. The Texas bill still allows minors to marry if they are legally emancipated from their parents.
In 26 states, the law does not specify any minimum age for marriage.
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. The search turned up cases of 12-year-old girls married in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina, while other states simply had categories of “14 and younger.”
The United States has denounced child marriage in other countries as a “human rights abuse that contributes to economic hardship,” in the words of a State Department document published last year.
What about the young girls here? Child marriages that are deemed “devastating” in Niger and Afghanistan, are just as devastating here in the United States.
The legislators in New York and Florida need to end child marriage right here at home!
If you’re interested in reading more about Johnson’s ordeal, her book “Forgiving the Unforgivable” can be found on Amazon.