Inspired by the story of a woman who was forced to marry her rapist at 11 years old, the Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would ban the marriage of all minors in the state.
“It closes a loophole so that children can’t be used and abused by persons who under normal circumstances would go to jail,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the sponsor of the bill.
Under state law, minors age 16 and 17 can marry with parental permission. But if a child of any age is pregnant, a county judge can use their discretion in authorizing the marriage.
Sherry Johnson, who Benacquisto said is the “spirit” of the legislation, was 10 years old when she was raped and 11 when her religious parents forced her to marry her abuser. Johnson was present in the chamber with her six children as senators voted 37-0 to pass the legislation.
“Ms. Johnson has struggled her entire life because her parents forced her into a marriage as a child,” the Fort Myers Republican said.
More than 16,000 children — one as young as 13 —were granted marriage licenses in Florida between 2000 and 2015, according to state Vital Statistics data. Overall, state data shows 80 percent of minor who marry are girls wed to adult men.
Benacquisto championed the measure in the Senate, which rocketed through committee assignments. The effort in the House has one more committee stop before it can head to the full floor for consideration.
The Tahirih Justice Center, a national advocacy group that fights violence against women and girl, applauded the Senate on passing the bill.
“The passage of this legislation today is a victory for the thousands of Florida women who were forced and coerced into marriage as girls, whose ‘marriages’ were cover-ups for heinous crimes,” said Jeanne Smoot, a senior counsel for policy and strategy for the advocacy group.
Smoot urged the House to do the same as the Senate, saying the Legislature would “set an example for the rest of the country.”