How One Woman’s Story Changed the Laws on Child Marriage in Kentucky

When the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization that seeks to end violence against women, called on survivors of child marriage to share their stories, Donna Pollard of Kentucky reached out. Years later, in March 2018, that same story gave way to a major change in Kentucky law that established a new minimum marriage age—and prevented thousands of girls from surviving state-sanctioned abuse.

Unchained at Last, an organization that is dedicated to ending forced and child marriages in the U.S., found that between the years 2000 and 2010, around 248,000 children at least as young as 12 were married in the states, of which the majority were girls. Around 77 percent of those girls were married to adult men, often with significant age differences. Kentucky had long competed for the place of second– or third-highest rate of child marriages in the country, but across the country, laws allow children to be trapped in these relationships and allow predators a loophole for what would otherwise be considered statutory rape.

There’s nothing more sobering than hearing about the horrors of child marriages from a survivor. At 19, she left the man who, with her mother’s blessing, married her at 16 when he was her 30-year-old counselor. She got a job and finished high school and college. The hurdles she jumped are no small feat. It took her close to a decade to gain a “mindset of independence” to speak up—reintegration into society took a lot more than the physical reality of being on her own. When I reached out to Pollard, I was struck by her courage in sharing her story and her determination to help others speak out. In the years since that decade of healing, she started an organization for survivors, educated the public and lawmakers on the issue, co-wrote Kentucky’s Senate Bill 48 and testified in front of lawmakers to ensure it would pass.

By sharing her story, Pollard started a national discussion on a cultural norm that was harming some of the most vulnerable members of our society and changed the lives of thousands of children who otherwise would have been trapped in child marriage. When she shared her story, lawmakers listened and acted—and our society is better for it.

Pollard’s story is no fairy tale, but she says that she was lucky to connect with the right people and build a coalition that equipped her with data, information and statistics on child marriage for when she met with Sen. Julie Raque Adams, who sponsored SB 48. And although not everyone in Kentucky’s legislature agreed with Pollard’s bill, her success in shepherding SB 48 into law shows that the determination of one survivor can make an impact that will change the lives of thousands of children. (That impact also only continues to grow: Pollard continues to advocate for survivors of child marriage, sexual assault and domestic violence—all sadly related miseries—through her organization, Survivor’s Corner.)

Of course, the burden shouldn’t be on survivors to tell their stories in order to convince our society that something is wrong with abuse and exploitation. It is the responsibility of the leaders and all stakeholders in our society—lawmakers, educators, heads of organizations, industry leaders, media figures and others—to empower survivors to share their stories and then to act on them.

Since last fall, the #MeToo movement has encouraged women to share their stories to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and assault—and has faced harsh backlash. It’s as if so many stories have been hushed, shut down, bottled up and suppressed that our society couldn’t handle the sudden outpouring without recoiling.

Pollard’s story is a stark reminder that society changes for the better when we listen to women. We must continue to listen. We cannot turn back.

Deshani Gunathilake is a freelance writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C. She writes about human rights and civil liberties and can be found on Twitter @dd_gunners.

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