Child Marriage in America—the Amendment of Abuse and Antiquity

A bill in Florida might leave room for children as young as sixteen to get married, if passed with a certain amendment. At the end of January the Florida Senate passed SB 140, which set the legal age of marriage at eighteen years old without exceptions. The Florida House had an identical version of the bill, HB 335, which was amended by the judiciary committee to allow sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls to get married if pregnant and if they have the consent of their parents. Spouses in this circumstance could only have a maximum age difference of two years. The Florida Coalition to End Child Marriage is urging both the house and the senate to pass this original bill, setting the minimum age of marriage to eighteen with no exceptions.

Sherry Johnson, a child marriage survivor from Tampa, Florida, has been a proponent against child marriage for several years. Raped at eight, pregnant at ten, and forced to marry her rapist at eleven, her childhood is a testament to the dangers of underage marriage and the history of child marriage in Florida.

Johnson grew up very poor, living with her mother in the back of a parsonage of her church. She often had to visit her aunt’s house to get lunch money, as her mother could barely make ends meet. It was there that she encountered the church bishop, her first assailant, who bribed her with money.

Johnson recalls trying to tell her mother about being sexually assaulted for the first time, but to no avail. Her mother refused to believe her. She went so far as to tell the church congregation that her daughter was lying about being raped. Sherry was abused so often that she accepted it as a normal part of her life. When her mother found out she was pregnant, she sent her and her rapist off to get married to avoid bringing shame to the family. She also dropped her off at a hospital to have the baby on her own. Johnson’s mother cared more about being judged by the church than about the wellbeing of her child.

Johnson grew up in an apostolic church which also forbade birth control. After her first child she became pregnant again. By the time she was seventeen, she had six children by her husband. Feeling neglected and tired of the physical and verbal abuse, she filed for divorce with the help of the state. At nineteen she remarried to a thirty-seven-year old man and had three more kids. She had her last child at twenty-seven.

After nine kids and two abusive marriages, Johnson fell into a deep depression. She hadn’t asked for such a horrible life and had no idea what she was being forced to do at such a young age. She was going through the motions of what she’d seen other married couples do at church. Eventually, she left the church she grew up in and was able to start her healing process when she befriended a psychologist at a new church. This was the first time Johnson felt that her voice was being heard. With her friend’s help, she was able to let go and forgive her mother, her rapists, and herself. At fifty-eight, she could now speak freely about what she endured in her childhood so that she could save others. She could be the voice of underage girls whose lives are at the disposal of their adult spouses.

If Johnson’s story isn’t enough, here are a few more reasons to oppose child marriage and the amendment to Florida’s bill:

Around 16,000 minors were married in Florida from 2000 to 2015. Approximately a quarter-million children were married between 2000 and 2010 in the United States. The US State Department declared child marriage as a “human rights abuse” that “produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood.” Children should not be forced or coerced into a legally binding situation. It is difficult to access the appropriate legal resources when they are under the age of eighteen and need assistance if they encounter abuse in the marriage, or simply want to divorce. In some states children can’t file for divorce. Keep in mind that most child marriage situations are underage girls marrying adult men. This inadvertently traps girls into an arrangement in which they have little to no power, yet their husbands have access to plenty of resources.

According to the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that fights against child marriage and forced marriage, more than half of the United States do not have a minimum age requirement for marriage, including Florida. This leads to violations of statutory rape laws that are sometimes made legal through marriage loopholes.

Underage marriage in the United States and abroad is often influenced by culture and religion. If an underage girl gets pregnant, marriage can be used to cover up the sin of having kids out of wedlock, which would bring dishonor to the family. Similarly, our cultural understandings of sex and sexuality leave much to be desired as they are shaped by patriarchy, ultimately rejecting a woman’s autonomy. This was reflected in May 2017, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would outright ban all underage marriages in New Jersey, citing religious customs as a part of his reasoning.

Girls who marry before they turn eighteen have increased health complications as well. They are 23 percent more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and cancer in their lifetime.
Child marriage also correlates to an increased rate of sexually transmitted infections and early pregnancies because girls may not have the means to access safe sex practices and medical care. It is also associated with higher death rates due to childbirth, pregnancy termination, and malnutrition of the offspring.

Child marriage correlates to an increase in mental disorders. Women who married as children are three times as likely to develop antisocial personality disorder than women who married as adults. They may also develop major depressive disorder, phobias, and other psychiatric disorders.

Child marriage severely limits girls’ education and economic opportunities. Girls who get married underage are 50 percent more likely to drop out of school, and four times less likely to finish college. They also have difficulty accessing education and job opportunities because they are prone to have more children within a smaller time frame. Less access to education and work opportunities leads to lower wages and living in poverty.

Women who marry before the age of eighteen are three times more likely to experience domestic violence than women who get married at twenty-one and older.

The divorce rate for those who marry before eighteen is up to 80 percent.

This is a human rights issue that should not be interfered with on the basis of culture or religion. The Florida House should get rid of the amendment to establish a clear age boundary of eighteen years old for marriage, no matter the circumstance. If they do, Florida will become the first in the United States to completely outlaw child marriage.