Too young for such things?

Sherry Johnson, age 11, found herself pregnant after rapes by a minister and a 20-year-old member of her church.

“I guess you’re just going to get married,” Johnson’s mother told her.

In Florida, it is legal for an 11-year-old to get married as long as a parent and/or judge approves.  In fact, an eight year old can marry in the land of Walt Disney World, Spring Breaks and the Daytona 500.

That wasn’t enough, however, for the court clerk in Tampa, where Johnson, her family, and her rapist lived.  He turned down the request for a marriage license for a child.

So her family and church went to nearby Pinellas County, where the clerk issued the license.

“It was forced on me,” Johnson said.

In Florida, a child under 16 gets married every few days.  Often, if the youngster is also female, she is pregnant.

Unusual?  Something we hear about only in the third world but not here in America?

Think again.  In America, more than 167,000 children 17 and often far younger are often forced to marry each decade.

In the first decade of this still young century, 14,278 children got married in Florida.  That makes make the Sunshine State second in America in states where allow children to marry.  Texas, by far, ranks first, with 34,793 such marriages during the same period.

Virginia ranks seventh, with 6,775 children getting married from 2,000 to 2,010.

In most cases, such marriages need consent of parents, a judge, or both.  Twenty-seven states, however, do not even set a minimum age to marry, says the Tahirih Justice Center‘s Forced Marriage Institute.

Such marriages involves older, adult men and underage girls and getting married to a minor is one way for an adult to escape predator laws that is supposed to make sexual contact between adults and children illegal.

Sadly, sex between adults and children is becoming more and more common throughout the nation, states like Virginia and even Floyd County: Where  a 42-year-old county man recently went to prison for 20 years for starting a years-long rape-based relationship with a step-daughter when she was just 11. Another of a grandfather who admitted sexually molesting his granddaughter when she was under age 10.

“I guess I just loved her too much,” James Bond told the judge.

Another Floyd County man told Judge Marc Long his sexual assaults on a 12-year-old girl was “not rape, but love.”  Long didn’t buy that defense and sent him to prison, where he remains.

In New Hampshire, Cassandra Levesque, researching a Girl Scout Project, learned 13-year-old girls could marry in her home state, so she convinced her legislator to sponsor a law to raise the age to 18.

Other state legislators in New Hampshire howled like banshees and killed the bill in March.

“We’re asking the Legislature to repeal a law that’s been on the books for over a century, that been working without difficulty, on the basis of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project,” joked state representative David Bates.

Bates ignored statistics showing young girls are often raped before their forced marriages to the adult males.  Those rapes often end in pregnancy.

Virginia allows “emancipated minors” at age 16 and 17 (who are granted adult status by courts) to marry.

In nearby North Carolina, those down to 14 can get hitched.  West Virginia sets no minimum age.  Young girls under 10 years of age have been married in “wild, wonderful West Virginia.”

Florida also sets no state minimum age for girls to marry.  Sherry Johnson says she says she was raped by both her minister and a parishioner and gave birth to a daughter at age ten (a birth certificate filed in Florida verifies this).

Johnson said her parents, aided by the church, bullied her into marriage.  Her conservative Pentecostal church often married off underage girls, she sdds, to hide rapes by church elders.

With family and her church urging her to get married, a judge approved the marriage to end an investigation of the rapes and told her: “What we want is for you to get married.”

“It was a terrible life,” Johnson told The New York Times, which printed her accounts of missing school, spending her days changing diapers and struggling to pay expenses.

She also ended up bearing nine children.

She told the Times:

They took the handcuffs from handcuffing him (for the dismissed rape charges) to handcuffing me, by marrying me without me knowing what I was doing.

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?

If a child bride like her tries to run away from an abusive marriage, shelters turn them away because they are minors.

Some clerks, like the one in Tampa, refuse to marry young female brides.

“For almost all of them, marriage means rape on their wedding night and thereafter,” says Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained for Life, an organization that fights forced child marriages.

Lyndsy Duet, a Texas school counselor, told Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times that she was raped at 14 by a young man brought into her conservative Christian family home.  The rapes continued for three years before he used her parents to force her into marrying him.

“He asked my parents if he could marry me,” Duet told Kristoff.  “My mother was crying, she was so happy.”

It took Duet eight years of a violent marriage where she was even threatened with a chainsaw, before she could escape, attend college (on her own, and graduate first in her class).

(Our thanks to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Unchained at Last and the Tahirih Justice Center for providing much of the information for this article.) 

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