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Sherry Johnson, age 11, is a new parent and a soon-to-be wife. Instead of attending school and socializing with friends, she is forced to pay bills, change diapers, and focus on house chores. Soon, she is married to the man (age 20) at her church who raped and impregnated her. Where were her parents during all of this? They helped plan the wedding to avoid legal issues with the church. Years later, Sherry finds herself acting as a single mother to nine kids while her husband seems to have disappeared—something he does often.
This may seem like a horrific backstory to some character in a novel or maybe some nightmare that would happen in another country, but this is the life of a girl from Tampa, FL. Yes—in the US. This was in 1971. But you would be surprised to find that things have not changed much.
While most states have a legal age of consent or age for marriage, there are many states that allow exceptions with parental consent or a court order. As of 2017, it was reported that there were 27 states with such loopholes (and more with legal ages below 18). It is estimated that there were over 167,000 child marriages between the years 2000 and 2010. These numbers were from only 38 states which makes you question—how many more were there?
In 91 percent of child marriages, there was an age gap large enough to cause statutory-rape charges if not for the marriage. Even if a child does not consent, parents can go forth with the marriage. If a child becomes pregnant, they can be married regardless of age in some states. Many times, marriages are arranged to avoid legal or personal conflicts with churches, organizations, businesses, or other groups connected with the family.
The states with the highest number of child marriages are Texas and West Virginia. Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Nevada, California, and New York also reported high numbers. Texas, California, and New York have recently proposed bills to combat child marriages.
Organizations like Unchained at Last help victims regain their life by providing legal, financial, and health assistance. These organizations often have their own lawyers and mental health specialists who help educate children and assist them in carrying out legal actions needed for divorce, custody battles, restraining orders, and more.
While these groups can help children gain their independence while providing a support system, they often have troubles getting to the children that need them. Many children are afraid to reach out in fear of hurting their families—especially when their parents arranged the marriage. They are often innocent children who love their families and don't understand why they would be put in this situation. There are also legal boundaries preventing the operation of such organizations. Children are not able to start a legal action in their own name. That is to say, they are able to marry, but not divorce. Many organizations also provide housing for children attempting to escape their relationship. Minors under 18 are considered runaways for leaving home, and organizations can face legal issues for sheltering these children.
90 percent of child marriages are girls—but it can happen to any child. Immigrants also tend to have a higher percentage of child marriages. Again, there have been child marriages across all different races, ethnicity, religions, political identities, and communities within the US.
No matter the case, it is horrific to see children—in some cases as young as Sherry—being forced into marriages with their rapists. It is hard to understand why parents would consent to this, and in some cases promote it. Child marriage is legal rape and legal slavery in many cases. It is time we direct our attention to this issue and speak up for the children who do not understand.
Give the children a voice.
Statistics & Facts:
Interview with & Stats from Unchained at Last:
Case Study of Sherry Johnson: