TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A woman who was 11 when she was forced to marry her rapist has worked for six years to ban child marriages in Florida. On Friday, she was hailed as a hero after the Legislature passed a bill prohibiting marriage for anyone under 17.
State lawmakers have repeatedly cited Sherry Johnson as an inspiration to change the law. She watched in the House gallery as the bill passed the House on a 109-1 vote, then stood as representatives turned to face her and applauded.
‘‘My heart is happy,’’ she said afterward. ‘‘My goal was to protect our children and I feel like my mission has been accomplished. This is not about me. I survived.’’
The bill was a compromise between the House and Senate. The Senate originally passed a bill that banned the marriage of anyone under 18, but the House had wanted to carve out exceptions for some 16- and 17-year-olds when there’s a pregnancy.
The bill going to Republican Governor Rick Scott would set limits on the marriage of 17-year-olds. While pregnancy won’t be a factor, anyone marrying a 17-year-old couldn’t be more than two years older and minors would need parental consent. Scott’s office said he will sign the bill.
Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with the consent of both sets of parents. If a pregnancy is involved, there’s no minimum age for marriage if a judge approves. A legislative staff analysis showed that between 2012 and 2016, 1,828 marriage licenses were issued in Florida to couples when at least one party was a minor. That includes a 13-year-old, seven 14-year-olds, and 29 15-year-olds.
In one case, a 14-year-old married a 15-year-old and in another, a man over the age of 90 was able to marry a girl who was 16 or 17 years old. In some cases, girls were allowed to marry men more than twice their age.