Woman Who Was Forced Into Marriage At 11 Successfully Lobbies To Change Florida Marriage Law

The woman's parents and church forced her into the marriage in order to avoid a 'messy criminal case.' She hopes the new law will protect children from a similar fate.

Sherry Johnson driving force behind Florida's child marriage law reform
Brendan Farrington / AP Images

The woman's parents and church forced her into the marriage in order to avoid a 'messy criminal case.' She hopes the new law will protect children from a similar fate.

The new Florida marriage law passed on a 109-1 vote on March 9. State representatives took a moment to acknowledge and applaud Sherry Johnson, and for good reason. Johnson worked tirelessly for years to lobby for the new laws.

The old law allowed 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent. However, there was no age requirement if the woman was pregnant, and if a judge approved. The new law requires people to be at least 17-years-old and have parental consent. Also, the 17-year-old cannot marry anyone who is more than two years older, detailed USA Today.

Sherry Johnson’s goal was to protect future children from her fate. By the time she was 10-years-old, she had been raped and had given birth to her first daughter. As child welfare opened a rape investigation, her family and church decided the best thing to do would be for her to marry her rapist in order to “avoid a messy criminal case.”

So at age 11, Johnson was forced to marry the 20-year-old parishioner from her conservative Pentecostal church. She was too young to understand marriage, asking her mother, “How do I act like a wife?” The New York Times adds that the judge who approved the marriage also dropped the rape investigation, telling Johnson that “What we want is for you to get married.” Years later, after five more children, Johnson broke free from the marriage.

For Johnson, the new law meant her determination paid off.

“My heart is happy…My goal was to protect our children and I feel like my mission has been accomplished. This is not about me. I survived.”

Between 2000 and 2015, 200,000 children under the age of 18 were in marriages in the U.S., reported NPR. The majority of the marriages involved underage girls and adult men.

The Kansas City detailed a list of state laws, which shows that most states require parental consent for 16- and 17-year-olds and a judges’ approval for anyone younger. This makes Florida’s marriage laws one of the strictest in the country.

Donna Pollard speaks out in favor of new Kentucky marriage laws
Donna Pollard speaks out in favor of new Kentucky marriage laws. Adam Beam / AP Images

Other states are considering new marriage laws, including Kentucky. The Kentucky Senate passed a new marriage bill on March 7 with a 34-3 vote. Opponents asked whether it’s fair to prevent pregnant teenagers from being willfully married, detailed the Courier Journal.

Similar to Florida, one woman named Donna Pollard is the face of Kentucky’s reform, in partnership with a national advocacy group. Pollard married a 29-year-old man when she was only 14. She met the man at a treatment center, where he worked while she was seeking help. The marriage became abusive and violent.

Pollard hopes to raise the minimum age for all marriages in the state to 18. Currently in the state, those who are 16- and 17-years-old can marry with a parent’s permission. Those under 16 and pregnant can marry with a judge’s approval.