By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN
The revelation of rampant sexual exploitation in the movie industry centering on film mogul Harvey Weinstein has mushroomed into an expose of the sordid behavior of sexual predators in a variety of industries and in politics, launching the #Me Too movement and sparking fierce debate on the relationship boundaries which should exist between men and women.
But long before then, another aspect of male-female relationship was given little attention.
Meet Sherry Johnson, who said she was repeatedly raped by her bishop and a 20-year-old deacon whom she was forced to marry while still a pre-teen nearly 50 years ago. Not even her mother believed her when she complained,– until she became pregnant, giving birth at 11.
As child welfare officials began to investigate her pregnancy, her family and church leaders decided she should marry the deacon, the way to avoid criminal charges. When her mother asked her if she wanted to get married, she answered, “What is marriage? How do I act like a wife?”
Johnson’s mother took her to a Hillsborough County court for the required approval but the judge withheld consent. Another judge in nearby Pinellas County gave the OK a month later. And so the preteen was legally thrust into a life of abuse, poverty and early motherhood that saw her give birth to six children by age 17 and three more by age 27 — with three husbands.
“It was a terrible life,” Johnson told Leonardo Blair of the Christian Post last May. “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?”
But Johnson was determined to rise above her circumstances. She eventually began lecturing about child marriage and in 2005 wrote a book, “Forgiving the Unforgivable,” that got her a note from Michelle Obama. She became a caregiver and graduated from high school at 55.
And, feeling her state let her down, she embarked on a campaign against child marriage in Florida.
There was little fanfare of the sort sparked by the #Me Too movement, probably because child marriages, for whatever reason, were not uncommon. Statistics compiled by Unchained At Last show that in the 38 states that kept statistics, 167,000 children, mostly girls, some as young as 12, were married, mostly to men 18 or older, between 2000 and 2012. Based on such figures, the nonprofit estimated that, in that same 12-year period, 248,000 children were married in the U.S.
Of the 167,000, Texas had the highest figure, 34,793, and New Hampshire the lowest, 156. Florida, which was second, with 14,278, has allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent, with no age limit when the girl is pregnant if a judge agrees. The Associated Press reported that, between 2012 and 2016, 1,828 marriage licenses were issued in the state, with at least one of the couple being a minor – including one 13-year-old, seven 14-year-olds and 29 15-year-olds.
Marriage before age 18 has been legal in all 50 states, though statutory rape was universally outlawed. Some states took a pass on rape if the rapist married the victim, as happened with Johnson. Some have also been tinkering with their laws to make it more difficult for children to be married, though allowing for exceptions of one kind or other.
And this despite the U.S. officially deeming marriage before age 18 as “a human rights abuse” which “produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood” by forcing her “into adulthood and motherhood before she is physically and mentally mature,” according to the State Department’s 2016 report “The U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.”
The focus was probably the fact that a girl is married every two seconds in the world. According to Moni Basu of CNN, India headed the list last year with 27 million.
Johnson was not quite alone in her campaign, finding solidarity from Unchained at Last and the Jewish Women’s Foundation, in particular, and allies such as psychologist Joan Gaines, Democratic state Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation, a child abuse survivor and activist, and Republican state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, a rape survivor.
Johnson’s persistence finally prevailed when the Republican-dominated Legislature on March 9 approved a bill sponsored by Benacquisto and Republican state Rep. Jeanette Nunez of Miami.
The bill, which was sent to Gov. Rick Scott, eliminates the pregnancy loophole and says 17-year-olds may marry only if the partner is not older than 19 and the parents approve. The couples will have to undergo premarital counseling, with additional counseling if the girl is pregnant, and swear that there is no coercion. This is the country’s strictest prohibition against child marriage.
Johnson, once the child raped and forced into marriage, has given hope to thousands of girls and says she will take her campaign nationwide. A heroine and role model by any definition, she has showed that, despite the obstacles, “Me One” can also win victories.