Woman forced to marry her rapist as a child fights Florida law

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In Sherry Johnson's wedding photo, she was 11 years old. "How do I understand to know what marriage is about," she said. "I did what my mother said that I had to do."

She also did what a judge said was legal. 

Johnson said a judge signed off on the marriage between her and the 20-year-old church deacon who raped her and made her a mother by age 10. She divorced when she was 17 -- then a mother of five.

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Sherry Johnson in her wedding photo

CBS News

"I feel the whole system failed me," Johnson said. "It wasn't just one person. It wasn't just one source."

Johnson is now 58 years old and has spent the last five years trying to get Florida lawmakers to close what she calls loopholes in the law, which puts minors in marriages. 

Currently, no state bans marriage before the age of 18. It's estimated nearly a quarter million minors were married in the U.S. from 2000 to 2015. The majority are girls married to adult men, often with significant age differences.

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Now an adult, Sherry Johnson is fighting laws that allow child marriage

CBS News

"People just don't believe that this happens in modern-day America," said Florida Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto.

She sponsored a bill to ban marriage before 18 years old after hearing Johnson's story. We asked her how child marriage happens.

"It is the provision that if a child is under 16, the parents can go before a judge and the judge can give a blessing for that child to be married," Benacquisto said.

"We're responsible for our children and we should protect them," said Johnson.

Florida's Senate unanimously approved the child marriage ban, but it must also clear the House where one exemption would allow pregnant 16 and 17-year-olds to marry, if the partner is no more than two years older. Johnson vows to fight that.