A recent editorial that appeared in the New York Times has reignited public outrage on the issues of statutory rape and child marriages. In an op-ed piece written by Nicholas Kristof, the journalist recounts a meeting he had with Sherry Johnson who grew up in Florida, where she was the victim of rape at the tender age of 10-years-old.
The alleged rapist was a member of Johnson’s church when the incident occurred, and a local court did not punish him for the crime. Instead, according to Johnson, the judge urged her to marry the man who had forcibly made her pregnant a year earlier. Johnson says that the situation she was in was fairly common in the Florida Pentecostal community.
During the interview, Sherry recalls that she had been raped multiple times and not only by her future husband. She has accused the church minister and a fellow parishioner of also forcing themselves on her.
Shortly after the incident, child welfare authorities began showing up around town to conduct an investigation. Sherry’s family, she remembers, was not prepared to endure a “messy criminal case,” and so decided to arrange a wedding between the young girl and her 20-year-old rapist.
Ms. Johnson said that she felt like she was being imprisoned, not her rapist when the court and her family insisted that she marry the man.
“They took the handcuffs from handcuffing him to handcuffing me, by marrying me without me knowing what I was doing.”
At the time of the wedding, Sherry had already been pregnant for many months. She says her “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?'” Her mother did not offer her words of comfort, choosing instructions instead.
“She said, ‘Well, I guess you’re just going to get married.'”
The marriage of underage children to adults was legal in the state of Florida back when Sherry was eleven. So the family went to a government office in Tampa, but the clerk on duty refused to conduct the marriage. The family then went to Pinellas County, where they were granted a marriage license.
Ms. Johnson told the Times that her life was very hard, having to raise multiple children – nine in total – at such a young age. She was not able to attend school because she had to care for her children, often on her own.
“It was a terrible life. 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?”
In 2013, Sherry Johnson published a book about her life in the hope that it would shed light on the type of marriages that are still legally performed, not only in the United States but globally. She is also part of an organization called Unchained At Last, whose primary purpose is to end child marriage in the U.S.
After reading Sherry’s memoir, a representative from Florida state, Cynthia Stafford, was moved to sponsor a bill that would ban child marriages in Florida. Rep. Stafford says “Marriage is an adult responsibility. We don’t want them to vote, we don’t want them to drink alcohol, they can’t drive a car, and we allow them to marry under 16?”
Unfortunately, the bill was not passed. Similar laws in other U.S. states have also failed to get off the legislature floor. This year New Jersey Governor Chris Christie refused to sign into law a bill that would’ve prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from getting married.
While unable to cite which religions he was referring to, the governor was concerned that the bill would infringe on First Amendment freedoms.
“An exclusion without exceptions would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions.”
Despite the U.S. Government condemning child marriages in other parts of the world, the organization, Unchained at Last, alleges that 248,000 children in the U.S. got married to adults between 2000 and 2010. Of those, roughly 85 percent were girls who married adult men. Whereas, according to a report by Reuters, “underage marriage is widespread in the U.S., where about 170,000 children were wed between 2000 and 2010 in 38 of the 50 states where data was available.”
According to statistics published by Save The Children, around the world, a young girl is forced into marriage every seven seconds. The reasons cited for these marriages are more often than not rooted in cultural traditions or religious beliefs.
[Featured Image by Sunday Alamba/AP Images]