11-year-old girl forced to marry rapist who impregnated her

Sherry Johnson was just 11 years old when she became pregnant and was forced to marry one of multiple men who raped her.

Now 58, the Florida woman is helping shepherd legislation to put an end to child marriage in the state, the Miami Herald reports.

Johnson on Wednesday was in the public gallery of the Florida Senate, where senators praised her for promoting a bill that requires anyone getting married to be at least 18 years old.

A church bishop raped Johnson when she was just 8 years old in Tampa, according to the report. Her mother’s husband and a deacon from church would later do the same.

Johnson’s mother initially did not believe the rape allegations until the deacon, Alfonsa Tolbert, impregnated the girl.

She had to leave elementary school in order to give birth. Afterward, pressured by the church and her mother, she was forced to marry Tolbert at age 11 while still in fifth grade. He was 20 years old at the time.

One judge initially refused to perform the marriage ceremony, but the mother and Tolbert eventually found a judge who would grant the coerced union.

“Everybody failed me,” Johnson told the newspaper.

“Nobody protected me.”

Florida law requires that if pregnancy is involved in a relationship, there is no minimum age for a marriage.

Johnson was married to Tolbert for six years and produced six children – all by the time she was 17.

She later filed for divorce.

Johnson began lobbying state officials to end child marriage in 2012.

State senators passed a bill to do that unanimously on Wednesday, but the next day, an amendment was added to let minors marry who are 16 or older and the parents of an expectant child.

Both measures are now being debated in the state’s other legislative chamber, the Florida House.

Johnson told the newspaper she opposes the exception and will continue to push for a straight ban on underage marriage.

Current state law does not allow minors to marry on their own volition. Those who are 16 and 17 years old must get consent from their parents, and judges can OK a marriage for younger children if there is a pregnancy.

Florida has had more than 16,000 child marriages since 2011, according to the advocacy group Unchained at Last.

 

[Feature image: Associated Press/Sherry Johnson]