Sherry Johnson was 11 when her mother told her she was going to get married. The bridegroom was nine years older and a deacon in the strict apostolic church that her family attended. He was also the man who had raped her and made her pregnant. “They forced me to marry him to cover up the scandal,” Johnson says.
“They forced me to marry him to cover up the scandal,” Johnson says. “Instead of putting the handcuffs on him and sending him to prison, they put the handcuffs on me and imprisoned me in a marriage.”
In Florida's halls of power, Sherry Johnson is somewhat of an anomaly: a black woman who grew up destitute and survived child abuse.
Her story is shocking. Raped at 8 and pregnant at 10, she was forced to marry her rapist at 11. She had to abandon high school after the babies kept coming.
At 58, she sports a head full of thick, tight curls and a pantsuit that would make Hillary Clinton proud. She navigates the corridors of the Capitol with a black binder tucked under her left arm, a purse slung over her shoulder and a fierce look of determination.
For years, she kept silent. But now, her voice rings clear in chambers where the state's laws are made. Her unrelenting public pleas to end child marriage are being heard.
If the bill passes, Johnson wants to stage a play based on her 2013 autobiographical novel, "Forgiving the Unforgiveable." She's also compiled a budget for a bus tour to promote awareness. She asks Book to help her brainstorm ways to raise money.
Child marriages are legal in every US state because of a hodgepodge of exceptions that let minors get married with parental consent or judicial approval. A majority of these marriages are coerced and involve girls marrying adult men, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit group that tracks child marriage and aims to end gender-based violence.
On this winter morning, days into the 2018 legislative session, she is on her way to meet with a state senator co-sponsoring a bill to abolish child marriage in Florida. An identical version has been introduced in the House.
Johnson has spent the last five years lobbying lawmakers to stop the kind of abuse she suffered in her childhood. An effort to ban child marriage under the age of 16 got traction in the Florida House in 2014 but went nowhere in the Senate. Since then, Johnson’s words have fallen on deaf ears. Doors have closed on her. Until recently.
Sherry and I have a lot in common,” Book tells me. “Until you put a face on this issue, people don’t understand,” she adds. “And Sherry has been that face. She has been able to destigmatize the process.” Book signed on as co-sponsor of the Senate child marriage bill introduced by Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican and rape survivor. The two women legislators embraced the #MeToo movement and have been vocal on sexual misconduct allegations clouding the Florida Legislature.
“This is exactly what’s happening,” she says. “People are coming out. My soul is so happy right now.” She has ambitions to organize a conference for survivors of child abuse and child marriage, so they can express themselves in public, just like she did when she testified before lawmakers. “So they can get it all out,” she says. She knows the importance of that firsthand.