Sherry Johnson lived a very troubling childhood and early adult life. In 1971 she was forced to marry a church deacon who raped her and subsequently had six children by the man.
Now, 47 years later Johnson is the hero and inspiration for a bill that had just passed in Florida, banning children under the age of 17 to marry. Johnson reportedly sat in the house gallery and watched as the bill swept through chambers 109-1.
“My heart is happy,” Johnson said after the vote was taken. “My goal was to protect our children, and I feel like my mission has been accomplished. This is not about me. I survived.”
Originally, we reported that there would be some discussion as to what would be in the bill and how it would be passed due to differing opinions between the Florida House and Senate. Ultimately, the bill bans marriage for anyone under 17 while pregnancy won’t be a factor. Also anyone attempted to marry a 17 year old can only be, at maximum, two years older.
A Florida woman, who was forced to marry the man who raped her when she was 11 years old, is leading the charge to make child marriage illegal in her state.
58-year-old Sherry Johnson was one of several who sat in the public gallery Wednesday (January 31) as senators thanked her for pushing for the bill prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 from getting married for any reason or under any circumstance.
When she was eight years old, Johnson was first raped by a church bishop in Tampa. The Miami Herald reports that Alfonsa Tolbert, a deacon and her mother’s husband, also raped her. Initially, Johnson’s mother did not believe her when she told her that rape was occurring and said she was lying.
That all changed when she became pregnant by Tolbert though. She would subsequently leave elementary school to give birth and make her mother face facts.
It didn’t get any better for Johnson though, who was then taken to a courthouse to marry Tolbert after pressure came from the church. She was only 11 while he was 20, and their marriage was legal.
In Florida, if a pregnancy is involved, there is no minimum age for marriage as long as a judge approves the marriage licence.
Johnson’s marriage to Tolbert lasted for six years, during which time she birthed six children by age 17. She then filed for divorce.
In 2012, Johnson began lobbying Florida’s government to abolish child marriage. Now, in 2018, the bill banning child marriage just passed through the Florida Senate unanimously. A representative from the Senate named Johnson “the reason for the bill.”
An amendment was added to the House bill the following day that allowed minors aged 16 and older to marry if they’re expecting a child. Both bills – one with and one without the amendment – are headed to Florida’s House to be debated.
Johnson says she’ll continue to fight for the bill with no exceptions if the one with stipulations is passed.
Currently, parental consent is needed for children aged 16 and 17 to marry. Florida doesn’t allow anyone under 18 to independently consent to marriage.
(Photo: Brendan Farrington/AP/REX/Shutterstock)