AMARILLO, Texas (KFDA) - Child marriage may seem like a third world problem, but the issue is very much prevalent in the U.S.
In Texas, over 41,000 minors were reportedly married to adult men between the years 2000 to 2017. Among those, 96 percent are girls married to adult men.
In 1985, Dawn Tyree became one of those girls.
Her dad and step-mom moved from California to Amarillo, but given they had already paid for tuition, decided she should finish the school year there.
At that time, Dawn says she was already being molested by the family friend, who was now deemed her caretaker after her parents moved.
“The sexual abuse continued. There were times that I could vividly remember calling my step-mother in Amarillo, Texas and saying ‘I really want to move down there’ you know I’m totally crying to my parents saying ‘I want out of this house, I don’t want to be here anymore’, but it was looked at as attention-seeking,” said Dawn Tyree, survivor of child marriage and activist.
She finished her school year there and thought at least now the nightmare was finally over.
Except, it was just the beginning, as he decided to move to Amarillo too.
By the time she was 13, she became pregnant.
When her parents found out, instead of calling the police, they decided getting married was the best option.
She says her gut feeling told her it wasn’t, but at that age, she didn’t know any better but to trust the adults in her life.
“It was really scary after the marriage took place. I mean I was terrified during the marriage, which was like a business transaction. It was over in a flash and I realized that I was never going to be going back to school. I mean that it was over,” said Tyree.
She never stepped foot in her new middle school and by the time she was 15, she was raising herself and her two children.
When she decided to leave for the sake of her children’s safety, she faced a lot of barriers.
For one, her then husband, tightened their money, and went as far as taking the phone receiver with him, so she would not make any calls.
When she finally left, she was not allowed in shelters, could not enroll in school without her husbands permission, and could not get a divorce because she was only emancipated, not a full adult.
Although most of her family had no idea this had been going on, she was able to stay with family until she got back on her feet.
She says the thing about child marriage is that you no longer have control over your body, there is a human essentially owning another human.
Eventually she was able to get a job and go back to school.
Now she is working with organizations like Unchained at Last who are pushing to abolish loop holes allowing minors to marry.
Fraidy Reiss says she was forced into a marriage at 19, and after years of the violent relationship, she was able to get out and later started Unchained at Last to help other people in forced marriages.
However, she realized many of the people requiring their services were minors, which is when the mission expanded to ending both child and forced marriages.
When they started, child marriage was legal in all 50 states. So far they have been able to change legislation in four of those states but say it has been harder than expected.
“Can you imagine if another country did this where they said ‘Okay from now on we are just going to emancipate all our girls before we marry them off and then it is not called child marriage anymore because they are emancipated so they are technically adults.’ If another country did that, we would cry foul. So then why are we letting it happen here, let’s cry found here too,” said Fraidy Reiss, Founder and Executive Director at Unchained at Last.
Earlier this year, Dawn testified in Texas, which she says was a lot more emotional given it was the state it happened to her. But, now the bill, which would prohibit marriage before 18, is pending in the state legislature.
She says that is why sharing her story is so important, to educate others on what is happening to thousands of children across the country.