Dawn Tyree, 51, didn’t have much of a childhood.
At 11, she says she was encouraged by her father and stepmother to spend time with a man 19 years her senior.
The man began “grooming” her, she says, giving her adult responsibilities, such as driving, to make her feel older.
The man impregnated her with her first child when she was 13. He was 32.
“The solution was marriage,” Tyree tells TODAY.com. “Marriage covers the rape, the sexual abuse and the child father.”
“Marriage saved him from a prison sentence,” she adds, “and basically put me in a prison.”
In 1985, Tyree completed sixth grade. That summer she got married.
“As minors, we can’t do anything about it,” Tyree explains. “It was a confusing time. It’s brainwashing — call it what it is.”
As recently as 2017, child marriage — what Child USA and UNICEF define as “any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child” — was legal in all 50 states, according to Unchained At Last , an organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage.
Currently, only seven states prohibit the practice without exception. A 2021 study found that 300,000 minors under the age of 18 were legally married in the United States between 2000 and 2018.
“It would have been really nice if one of the 30 adults in my life could have had the courage to stand up and say something,” says Tyree. “The mind-your-own-business generation is a thing of the past – we want more for our kids.”
“I was genuinely terrified of giving birth”
At age 13, Tyree says she was “scared of dying in childbirth.”
“Not because anyone had told me it was a possibility,” she adds. “It was because I was genuinely terrified of giving birth.”
Children who give birth face a higher risk of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis and systemic infections, according to the World Health Organization. The American Academy of Pediatrics has condemned child marriage, citing increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, early pregnancies and intimate partner violence.
“I was in and out of consciousness when I gave birth to my first child,” explains Tyree. “I realize now that it’s probably my life our in danger.”
Being a 13-year-old with a husband and a child was “all she knew,” says Tyree, so she tried to “make the most of my circumstances.”
“I learned when I was 14 that I was pregnant again,” she shares. “It was a hard pill to swallow – it put a little lump in my throat. But I survived the first birth, so I just reassured myself: ‘You’re going to be fine. You can do this.” Then I had my daughter.”
Now a mother of two, Tyree says she lived in a “weird limbo” where the adults in her life didn’t “want to engage with her” but also made it clear they “didn’t want me interacting with their kids. “
“I can remember these various times during my childhood marriage where I wished the person who seemed genuinely concerned would have asked if I was okay,” she says. “I wish someone would have saved us. I wish they would have picked up the phone. But the truth is, even if they wanted to, there was nothing they could do after marriage.”
“It was a legally binding contract,” she adds. “Basically, my husband owned me.”
“I Escaped Without a Plan”
At 16, Tyree found out she was pregnant for the third time. This time, she says, everything felt different.
“I became concerned about sexual abuse directed at my children,” she explains. “So after my daughter was born, I started trying to plan a way out. When I got pregnant again, I felt very trapped, so I made the decision to terminate the pregnancy and I escaped without a plan.”
With a 2-year-old and 1-year-old in tow, Tyree went to a women’s shelter — she says she was turned away because she was a minor.
“A social worker told me to go back to my parents, because they were ‘responsible for me’, but I was released,” she adds. “But if I was freed, why did my husband report me as a fugitive? It was a road no one should have to navigate.”
Rima Nashashibi, president of Global Hope 365, a non-profit organization focused on ending child marriage and human trafficking, says it is it is common for homeless young people to be rejected from adult homes.
“When they go to a shelter for abused women, they are turned away because they are minors and a liability,” Nashahibi tells TODAY.com. “They can’t go to a shelter because they’re married and have kids. So some of them end up on the street.”
With nowhere to turn, Tyree says at 16 she was homeless.
“I had to separate our family unit, because my children deserve to be housed and fed, so they went with their grandparents and I tried to get my feet on the ground,” she explains. “When I found a roommate situation, I took my kids back.”
Tyree says she had to wait until she was 18 to finalize her divorce, get custody of her children and start rebuilding her life.
“The courts, even in these grotesque marriages, these gross acts against children, favor the adult,” she explains. “My first real job was assembling bikes at Toys R Us. That’s how I paid rent for our one bedroom in a small house.”
It wasn’t until her own children were in their 20s, says Tyree, that she could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
“I don’t live in fear of losing my children anymore,” she says. “I’ve done it—I kept us safe. They’re grown up now.”
“I speak for those who are silenced”
Tyree is now dedicating her life to ending child marriage in the United States, testifying before state committees across the country as she pushes for state and federal bills that would ban the practice.
“It’s no longer about me,” she says. “I can remove all my trauma and show up for the other 13-year-old brides. I speak for those who are silenced – for those who don’t have a voice.”
Countries around the world, including the United States, have pledged to end child marriage by 2030 as part of 17 new UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Still, advocates like Tyree and Nashashibi say they’ve experienced significant pushback at both the state and federal levels.
The Child Marriage Prevention Act was introduced in Congress on January 19, 2018, but failed to pass and died in the 115th Congress.
“Federal elected officials will say this is a state issue,” Nashahibi explains. “So we’re meeting with elected officials at the state level. We still have 43 states left, and that’s why a federal law says ‘no child marriage under 18, no exemptions’ – we have to own it. If we” If we’re going to be a world leader , we must act as one, in all aspects.”
Indonesia banned child marriage in 2019. In Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria, the minimum age to be legally married is 18.
Additional problems advocates face are “religious freedom” arguments and educating the public about the issue itself. According to a 2020 survey, nearly half of all Americans believe that child marriage is already illegal in the United States.
“People need to get involved,” Nashahibi says. “And we need to amplify the voices of survivors.”
In addition to starting a digital letter-writing campaign and asking for a personalized solution for a specific city or county, Nashahibi says it’s important for parents to talk openly with their children.
“Parents can’t bury their heads in the sand and say, ‘This is not going to happen to our children,'” she says. “Have an honest discussion about your religion, abstinence or safe sex. Talk about what is a healthy relationship, what is allowed and what is not allowed, and how to respect your own body.”
As Tyree continues to work to eradicate the kind of marriage that stole her childhood from her, she says she has a message for the victims living this reality right now:
“There are people out there who are aware of these circumstances that feel so lonely and isolating,” she says. “We’re fighting for you. Hang on. Hang on.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of intimate partner violence or sexual abuse, you can visit National domestic violence website or call the hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233), all 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or find emergency resources for minors who are being pressured into marriage or are currently trapped in a marriage at preventforcedmarriage.org.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com