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Advocates Work To End Child Marriage In The U.S.


And a quick flag for parents, our next story deals with a difficult subject for young ears.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: We often hear about child marriage in the context of other countries. But it's also a huge problem here in the United States. Sherry Johnson was forced to marry in 1971 at the age of 11. She'd been raped by several members of her mother's Pentecostal church. And she had a baby.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about her story. Johnson spoke to us earlier this week.

SHERRY JOHNSON: I got pregnant at the age of 9-years-old. And I gave birth to my daughter at the age of 10. And then I was forced to marry my rapist at the age 11. I was 11 and he was 20.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were 11. You were taking care of a baby. And you were now married to a man. What was that like?

JOHNSON: First of all, I didn't know what to do with the child. Second of all, I didn't have a clue what to do as a wife. It was trauma to try to figure out and try to understand. And I remember coming home from school after she was born, washing diapers out in a tub because at that time they didn't have what you call Pampers nowadays.

So I had to wash diapers out and hang them on the line when I come home from school before I do homework because we wanted to catch them before the sun go down so they can dry. But to do that and then turn around and try to come in and learn how to cook so that I can have dinner for my husband, it was just torture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did no one try and help you? Did no one say, how could this happen to a young girl?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I would think that that would have been said by my mother. But actually, my mother is the one that actually encouraged me to marry. In the church, you're considered a sinner if you are actually with someone and you are not married.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're now a motivational speaker. Why is it important to you to share your story?

JOHNSON: Because the story that I have I have a lot to tell other young women or men because I found out doing my speaking both have been abused in some way. And seeing others come out to be able to explain how they feel and see the tears roll down their face is so meaningful. It caused me to want to be speak and do more - whatever I can to help somebody else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sherry Johnson, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Florida, where Sherry Johnson lives and was married at the age of 11 decades ago, still has no minimum age requirement for marriage. Fraidy Reiss is working to change that. She's the founder of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit dedicated to helping end child marriage throughout the United States. And I asked her, how common is this problem?

FRAIDY REISS: We at Unchained At Last, last year, went and collected marriage license data from across the United States. We were able to get the data from 38 states. The other 12 don't even track marriage age. And in those 38 states just between 2000 and 2010, more than 167,000 children as young as 12 were married - almost all of them girls married to adult men. And so extrapolating from what we found, we estimate that nearly a quarter million children were married across all 50 states in that decade.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How many states in the U.S. right now currently allow child marriage?

REISS: All 50 states right now. Marriage before 18 is legal across the United States - all 50 states. And, in fact, in 27 states, the law does not specify a minimum age below which a child cannot marry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you had any success in changing the laws?

REISS: When I first started researching this and writing about this, I thought, well, this is going to be an easy sell. Legislators just don't realize that this is happening. And once we point it out to them, they'll be so quick to change these laws. And I have found that, unfortunately, in fact, legislators have been extremely resistant.

And while we've managed to get legislation introduced in many different states, these laws have been either defeated - bills, I'm sorry, have been defeated. Or they've been watered down, amended to a point where they just don't really protect children anymore. Or legislators will say, well, you know, you're right. Maybe 14-year-olds shouldn't be allowed to get married. But what's so bad about marriage at 17 or 16 or 15?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is your response to them when they say that?

REISS: There are two really important reasons that we need to end marriage before age 18. And the first one is if we have an adult client, 18 or older, who calls and says, my parents are forcing me into marriage, please help me. The first thing we do is we help her to leave home and get into a shelter. A child, even a 17-year-old the day before her birthday, if we help her to leave home, we could be charged with kidnapping.

And contracts with children, generally, are voidable. So retaining an attorney, signing a retainer agreement is difficult, if not, impossible. And most children, generally speaking, are not allowed to bring a legal action in their own name, meaning a child is allowed to marry but not even allowed to file for divorce and can get a restraining order, order protection.

And the second one is the U.S. State Department in setting its foreign policy establish that marriage before 18 is a human rights abuse. And the U.S. State Department lists ending marriage before 18 globally as a key strategy toward empowering adolescent girls. And yet, somehow state legislators have not gotten this message that marriage before 18 is a human rights abuse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fraidy Reiss is the founder of Unchained At Last. Thank you so much.

REISS: Well, thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One bright spot in this fight - New York's state legislature voted last week to raise the minimum age of marriage from 14 to 17. The law now heads to Governor Andrew Cuomo for approval. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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