Pain and hardships are a constant part and parcel of our lives. However, there are but few people out there who have endured hardship and suffering to such a degree as that of Sherry Johnson. An American woman striving hard with the Florida state senator, Lauren Book, Sherry Johnson set out to abolish child marriage in the state of Florida, USA. The 58-year old, being a child marriage survivor herself, turned her movement into her life’s mission to protect every child from marriage before they reached the appropriate age of 17.
As she went further with her movement, she did win her case and ensured that no child had to ever marry before the age of 17. She also won numerous other accolades for her further achievements. However, all these achievements are set way far into the future. The story of Sherry Johnson begins all the way back from when she was merely a child. In order to understand her life, moreover, in order to learn from it, we need to go back to her life. Back when she was just born.
All About Sherry Johnson
Birth and Childhood
Sherry Johnson was born on the 11th of September 1960. She lived out her childhood days in the city of Tampa, Florida, with her family consisting of herself, her mother, and mother’s husband. Like every other family, the Johnson family also had to face problems, particularly financial problems. Sherry’s mother was the only earning member of their family and her income wasn’t nearly as much as they required to sustain themselves. As a result, the family lived in the parsonage of their Pentecostal church. Moreover, Sherry was often relegated to ask the church’s bishop for lunch money.
It was on the occasion of one such incident that the church bishop assaulted little Sherry. The girl merely at the age of 8 when the bishop summoned her to his chambers and sexually assaulted her. Being a little girl, Sherry had no idea about what she had just endured. She was clueless about what she had gone through. Moreover, she had even informed her mother of the incident. However, the lady brushed off the concerns of her daughter, presuming them to lies spread around by her. As a result, this became a regular practice for the little girl. Even the church deacon and her mother’s husband didn’t spare her and began assaulting her.
A Mother At The Age of 10
Two years later, when Sherry was at the age of 10, there was a blood vaccination program conducted at her school. It was here that Sherry learned about her pregnancy. However, by that time, she was already 7 months into her gestation period. Slowly but surely, the dots were connected and it was found out that the church deacon, Alfonsa Tolbert, was the father of the child.
Even during this time, Sherry’s mother refused to acknowledge her claims to support the statements that she had made regarding the church deacon. As she lay within the halls of the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, she felt completely alone for even her mother had abandoned her and declined from supporting her during her childbirth. On the contrary, the lady kept on supporting the 20-year old deacon and went to work on protecting him from any criminal charges that he might face.
A Wife At the Age of 11
After she delivered her first baby, the Child Welfare Services began to grow suspicious and investigate her family as well as the church. However, when news of this spread to the Johnson family, Sherry’s mom was the first one to panic. She set out to get Sherry and Alfonso, a man who was 9 years older than her, married to each other.
Johnson was completely terrified during this time. She was merely a child of 11 years old. At her age, she was supposed to be playing with dolls and using her imagination to shape up their lives. However, she didn’t have the luxury of participating in such aspects. This is because she had a real doll in her life – a daughter for whom she had to make decisions and face the consequences. She had no idea how to be a wife.
Today, almost all countries have strictly implemented the age of marriage to be 18 years old in Florida. The rule was the same in those days too. However, like a lot of laws at that time, this marriage law was also riddled with loopholes. During the time, children of any age were eligible to marry with the permission of the county judge, if there was any pregnancy involved.
When the family visited the first Government clerk for obtaining a marriage license, he promptly refused to grant one to her owing to her age. Sherry was relieved by this decision. She assumed that she wouldn’t have to be involved in a marriage that was one-sided at the best and completely against her will at the worst. However, this relief was completely short-lived.
When the first Government clerk refused to provide Sherry with a marriage license, the family drove up to another county and towards another judge. And to Johnson’s horror, this judge wholeheartedly agreed to grant the wedding license to the family. Sherry has often referred to this incident as one in which instead of handcuffing her rapist, the perpetrator of a crime, she was the one who was forcefully handcuffed into the restraints of her wedding dress.
A Child Raising Her Own Children
Post marriage, Sandy’s rapist and husband moved into the Johnson family along with her mother and her mother’s husband. In spite of being a husband and a father, Alfonsa, remained quite absent from their lives when required. He was never there for her. As a result, Sandy was forced to stay at home and take care of her child while she simultaneously learned how to be the perfect wife, a role which had been unwillingly bestowed upon her. In fact, this even hindered her road towards finishing even elementary school.
By the time she turned 17, Sherry had birthed 6 children. As she had no prior job experience to fall upon, she couldn’t even get hold of a job which could adequately pay her and help her in meeting her family’s needs. With the help of a housing authority, she soon moved out with her children. In the same year, she consulted with the Legal Aid Society who served her with a lawyer who understood her circumstances. The society also provided her with a mere financial aid of $75 to pay for her attorney for her divorce.
When Sherry turned 19, she met another man who was 18 years her senior. She married him and they had three children between them. The couple was married for over 26 years before they separated in the year 2002. Despite all her struggles that she has gone through in her lifetime, Sherry has regretted having her kids. She knows that she is a constant source of inspiration for her kids. Moreover, she knows that she has provided her children with the best of resources that she could have as a parent, under the circumstances.
A Driving Force To Eradicate Forced Child Marriage
- Her Period of Dormancy – For a while, Sherry lay dormant and voiceless in the shadows. However, she soon realized that she wasn’t the only victim of child marriages. There were multitudes of children who still faced the same problems every year. And she knew that it wasn’t enough for her to fight her own battles. She had to create a world where child marriage was banned. It was here that she started to lobby the Florida state legislature to make justifiable amends which could be successful in countering the act of child marriages.
- Connecting All Victims – The first project that Sherry undertook in her attempts to render child marriages illegal was to bring together all such victims together. She started an email and a hotline that was capable of countering the emptiness and hopelessness that the children feel when they are forcefully sent off to be married while they are still in their youth. This served as the means by which all such victims could come together with their woes and speak as well as seek help from others who have gone through the same problems. This simple gesture of knowing that there was someone who had gone through the same problems fuels the desire for someone to keep going on through their problems.
- The Birth of SB 140 – While facilitating the creation of laws to protect the rights of young children in marriage, Sherry faced innumerous rejections from the lawmakers. Being the steely-souled woman, she refused to give up. Even when they completely discarded her story, she kept on coming back to get the bill approved. However, the bigger problem was that the lawmakers refused to believe that their law was so imperfect in nature. However, it wasn’t long before someone actually verified Sherry’s accusations. And it here that her ideas began to be widely accepted by the lawmakers. This eventually gave birth to the Senate Bill 140, the law which protected child marriages while providing 17-year olds the right to marry in certain select conditions.
- The Passing of SB 140 – It was in 2013 when the Senate Bill was unanimously passed in the Florida senate. However, beyond this point, Sherry had to undergo a multitude of hurdles that were earlier not prevalent. The most prominent of these hurdles was the constant denial of the Bill whenever it reached the Senate. Almost every time, the bill would fizzle out whenever the Bill reached the senate. It was finally on the 23rd of March 2018 that the Senate finally passed the SB 140. The Governor who passed the legislation was Rick Scott.
Books By Sherry Johnson
To accentuate her efforts in helping prevent child marriages from happening any further, Sherry Johnson also wrote a book. The book was titled Forgiving The Unforgivable : Purple in a Darker Color. In the book, Sherry reveals everything relating to her traumatic childhood in detail. She completely opens herself up and reveals everything to the world that she had endured. Everything relating to her sexual assaults before the age of 10 and her forceful marriage life at the age of 11 is mentioned as well.
As she nears towards the end of the book, Sherry tells how she converted her childhood trauma overcame it to become a highly successful businessman and mother. When she launched the book in 2013, the idea was to use the book as a means by which she could further her cause to help children from being sent off to marry at a youthful period of their lives. However, she also wants such people to read this book who have suffered gravely at an early age in their lives and need to forgive people who have abused them.
Future Plans of Sherry Johnson
Even though the SB 140 has been passed, Sherry Johnson isn’t content. She feels that she has not yet accomplished her goals. In fact, for her future, she plans to work other non-profit organizations such as the AHA Foundation and go towards the ends of the nation to battle with child marriage cases. She believes that it is her life’s purpose to completely vanquish child marriage from the face of this earth and that there should be no child on this earth who is married. She wants lawmakers from all over the world to understand that they are the ones who are in charge of guarding the rights of children. Moreover, she also says that such lawmakers should work with the communities to spread awareness about child marriage.
Sherry Johnson’s story is one of the battles, hardships, and inspiration. In fact, she has been a constant inspiration to people from all the world owing to the problems that she faced and overcame. It wouldn’t be untrue to call her a beacon of light for children all over the world who are married forcefully without a say in the matter.