Florida legislators looking to tighten underage marriage laws

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By: Jake Stofan | Capitol News Service
October 24, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) -- Florida has one of the loosest child marriage laws in the nation. Now, lawmakers are looking to put an end to the practice once and for all.

Over the last 15 years, 200,000 Americans under the age of 18 have been married each year. 1,000 are married in the state of Florida alone.

The state's lax marriage laws are to blame, allowing children of any age to be wed if a pregnancy is involved. That's how Sherry Johnson was forced to marry her rapist at the age of 11.

"To live that life was catastrophically a turmoil for me, and it's been a turmoil for a long time," she said.

Jeanne Smoot, with the Tahirih Justice Center, says in a six-year period, more than 400 children were married to a spouse who's age difference would make sexual relations between the two statutory rape.

The age differences often lead to sexual abuse and domestic violence.

"Early marriage compounds a girl's dependency and vulnerability and can make her insecure through the rest of her life," Smoot said.

After a failed attempt at changing the law in 2014, the idea of tightening that state's marriage law is once again on the table.

New legislation seeks to outlaw any marriage for any individual younger than 18.

"It's a protective measure for those children who can't speak up for themselves," said Fort Myers Republican Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto.

The proposal would make Florida's marriage laws the strictest in the nation.

Sherry says, if the law passes, it would protect young girls like her, allowing them to live out the childhood she was never allowed to have.

"Being married at 11 caused me to repeat the same cycle over and over again until I understood what was actually happening in my life," she explained.

Between 2010 and 2016, 12 Florida children under the age of 18 were married to men more than twice their age.

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