In 1970 Sherry Johnson was 10 years old when she was first raped by a member of her church in Tampa, Florida. After getting pregnant, she was forced at the age of 11 to marry her rapist by her parents and church community. Her mother took her to their county courthouse to get a marriage licence; that judge refused. So they went to a nearby county where a judge did sign off. She was married to her 20-year-old groom at the courthouse. Sherry had five more children before she was able to file for divorce when she was 18 years old. While this was almost five decades ago, the law that allowed this to happen is still on the books in almost every US state.
Child, early, and forced marriages are not uncommon. According to Unchained at Last, a group that works to end these practices, more than 167,000 young people under the age of 17 were married in 38 states between 2000 and 2010. For the remaining 12 states, data is not available.
Last week, the state of New York signed a bill that prohibits marriages for those under the age of 17, and requires 17-year-olds to obtain a judge’s permission to marry. In 27 states, there is no limit to how young a child can be if parents consent and a judge agrees to authorise the marriage.
Putting greater restrictions on the circumstances minors can marry has proven difficult in some states. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie rejected a bill to end teenage marriage that was passed by both state House and Senate, saying, “the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill’s proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state.” In New Hampshire, a bill to raise the minimum age to 18 recently failed to pass.
But the movement to end child marriage is gaining momentum. Similar legislation is under way in at least 10 other states, and a Virginia law limiting exceptions to underage marriage went into effect in June 2016 .
The Stream talks with survivors of early marriages, and takes a look at why there is resistance to changing the laws.
Joining The Stream:
Senior counsel for policy and strategy, Tahirih Justice Center
Child marriage survivor
Author, “American Child Bride”
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