When she was just eight years old, Sherry Johnson began a life of terror no child should ever have to experience. Before she even began puberty, Sherry was being raped by a church leader who was more than twice her age. She was too young to truly know what was happening to her at the time.
Though she tried to tell her parents and other adults what was going on, no one believed her. One day when she was 10 years old, the school she was attending called in a doctor and a nurse and performed an examination on her in the physical education room and discovered she was seven months pregnant. They promptly expelled her from the school.
Upon the discovery of her pregnancy, her mother stood up in her church on Sunday and told the congregation that Sherry was lying about being raped and blamed Sherry for bringing shame to her family. Her mother then forced her to marry the man who had been raping her for two years. By the time she was 16 years old, she had become a mother six times over at the hand of her rapist.
Unfortunately, Sherry’s is not the only story of its kind in Florida. Between 2000 and 2015, more than 16,000 children under the age of 18 were married in Florida, and more than 200,000 were married in the United States.
A growing body of research shows the grave consequences of underage marriage. Girls who marry early in the United States are 31 percent more likely to end up in poverty later in life. Girls who marry because of a pregnancy are more likely to have a second child soon thereafter, compared with girls who become pregnant but do not marry. They are more likely to experience lower economic and educational attainment as a result of teen marriage.
Researchers have also found significant associations between child marriage and mental and physical health disorders, with a 23 percent higher risk of disease onset — including both physical and mental health conditions — for women. Additionally, those who marry as teens have a divorce rate higher than 80 percent, compared with a 45 percent divorce rate among legal adults.
Research aside, however, minors do not enjoy the same rights as legal adults. Once they are married, it is incredibly difficult to leave that marriage. Minors are unable to enter into contracts, apply for loans, rent an apartment, purchase a vehicle, sign up for a phone plan and lack a myriad of other resources they may need to escape a physically, emotionally or sexually abusive marriage.
This year, the Florida Legislature is committed to protecting our children from underage marriage. We have filed legislation in both the House and Senate that will prevent stories like Sherry’s from ever happening again in this state. The bills do not restrict a couple from getting engaged or even living together, but they will protect children by setting a minimum age in which they may obtain a marriage license. Sherry Johnson, who is now 58, firmly supports this bill.
It is vital that two people who enter into a marriage enter into it as equals, with each having the same legal rights as their spouse. It is essential that those who find themselves in an abusive relationship are equipped with the rights and resources to find their way out. We are proud to champion, along with our legislative colleagues, these good bills that will bring Florida out of the 1800s and protect Florida’s children from this day forward.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the Senate Rules Chair, has sponsored SB 140 in the Florida Senate this year. A Republican, she represents District 27, which includes parts of Lee County. Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the House speaker pro tempore, has sponsored HB 335 in the Florida House this year. A Republican, she represents District 119, which includes parts of Miami-Dade County.