Florida Woman Forced to Marry at 11 Inspires New Law

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Child SlaveryForced MarriageLaw & Policy

A woman who was forced to marry her rapist when she was just 11 years old has now inspired the Florida Senate to pass a ban on child marriage in the state.

Sherry Johnson, 58, sat in the gallery of the legislature while senators shared her story and thanked her for pushing the bill forward. Johnson was raped by a church deacon when she was 9 years old, giving birth at 10. She was forced to marry him when she was 11 after her church pressured her mother to consent, a move that allowed a judge to approve the marriage.

TIME reports that the new law will prevent both forced child marriage and cases where children are forced to marry their rapists:

Florida doesn’t allow anyone under the age of 18 to independently consent to marriage. Children aged 16 and 17 can marry with the consent of both children’s parents. But if there’s a pregnancy involved, there is no minimum age for marriage as long as a judge approves the marriage license.

Between 2010 and 2016, 3,161 children — 72 of them under the age of 16 — were married in Florida, according to state Department of Health statistics. At least one child was married in every one of Florida’s 67 counties and in some cases the spouse was at least twice the minor’s age.

Bill supporters say current law essentially lets child rapists use marriage to go unpunished.

Johnson said the senate’s approval of the bill helps heal the pain. “To be able to talk about it, to know that there’s something that’s being done about it … it makes my heart happy. I smile from within to know that children will not have to face what I’ve been through,” she said.

A companion House bill has its final committee stop on Thursday. If approved, it will be ready for a vote by the full chamber.

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