Dawn Tyree

When Dawn’s parents started a new life in Texas, they left their 11-year-old daughter behind in California with a 30-year-old family friend who quickly began to abuse her. By 13-years-old, Dawn was pregnant. Instead of providing protection, Dawn’s parents pressured her into a forced underage marriage to save themselves and her abuser from prosecution.

 

Dawn reached a turning point at age 15 following the birth of her second child. Fearing for the safety of her new, beautiful daughter, Dawn carefully planned her escape and fled her violent marriage with her children at 16. But she wasn’t able to get a divorce or win legal custody of her children until after her 18th birthday. Thankfully, Dawn's children remained with her during this entire period despite court orders—something she wants all survivors to know is possible. It took Dawn more than 10 years to finally rebuild her life after having her childhood taken from her.

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My name is Dawn Tyree and I am the survivor of a child marriage.

The man I was forced to marry at 13-years-old had been my sole care provider for two years. He had begun sexually abusing me at age 11, had gotten me pregnant, and married me by age 13. This man was 32-years-old. 

He came into my life just before my father and new stepmother eloped some 1,400 miles away. Before they moved away to start a new life together, my parents enrolled me in a private school and invited their friend to move into our home to “look after” me. Today, I can see that in some ways my stepmother might have thought she was placing a safety net around me with the private school. 

But in the end, it was the private school that totally failed to notice the signs of my distress or to protect me. When sexual abuse by my “nanny” resulted in my pregnancy in the summer of 1985, I was forced to marry him at age 13 with the consent of my father. I never had the chance to set foot in my new school.

At 13 years of age, my new husband taught me what it meant to be married, how he expected me to play the role of his wife, and how babies were made.

But I had no clue how quickly my young life would begin to unravel. The relationship with my abuser was a complex and tricky one. He was the only constant in my life and, oddly enough, the only one I thought I could trust. More than my own parents, I needed him, depended on him, and even looked up to him.

It was my abuser who decided to tell my parents that I was pregnant and that he was the father. He did what any decent man would do, right? He asked my parents if he could marry me. Almost immediately, I could see the adults in my life desperately trying to damage control the entire situation.

Legally, my parents were looking at child neglect and child endangerment charges. This 32-year-old man was looking at a lengthy prison sentence for child sexual abuse.

What happened next was an even greater atrocity: Emotional Manipulation, Threats, Bullying and Coercion.

The adults schemed together to find ways to remedy the twisted wreck our home life had become. My stepmother tried to terminate the pregnancy – she failed but her attempt nearly killed me and my unborn son. Even at 13 years old, I could see the desperation in my so-called “trusted” adults.

Because my stepmother was both emotionally and physically abusive towards me, my abuser began to brainwash me by convincing me that my life would be better with him. He told me how he would provide for me and our unborn child. He told me how life with my parents would always hurt and that they didn't love me. He wept at my feet and expressed how terrified he was. He told me that he would lose his life if he got in trouble for this.

Dependent on him, I bought most of the lies that he fed to me.

I started to push back at my stepmother. I hated her - for all the times she called me a liar, for all the times that she hung up on me when I called her for help. I told her it was her fault. She backhanded me across my face and told me, "you are nothing but a whore and have been trouble since the day that I allowed you to move into my home." She told me that I couldn't stay with my parents: especially not with a baby. What followed were exhausting days of total brainwashing – I came to understand that I was never to ask any family members for help. I threatened to run away, but I had nowhere to go.

And then it happened: they decided that I would marry him.

This was the fourth time in my young life that I was forced to give up something special and precious just to sustain my existence in the world. The marriage, of course, was nothing more than a cover-up for rape. It saved my predator from a prison sentence and saved my parents from child abuse and neglect charges. 

Data shows that most forced marriages take place under these circumstances and fall into this category. We have overwhelming evidence that forced marriage is destroying the lives of many young girls–and it’s still legal in 46 states.

Our society has evolved, and it’s time our laws evolve too.

We know that young girls benefit and thrive with equal opportunity. But child marriage shackles these girls to servitude, forced pregnancies, and little opportunity for an education. Once these girls are handcuffed to this life, the keys are tossed aside along with any dreams or aspirations for their lives they might have had. The future of a child bride is cast aside to protect rapists and negligent parents.

I was a sex slave to my rapist. He took photographs and videos of me. He told me that no one could help me or save me because I "belonged" to him. I was turned away from shelters because, at my age, I was considered a runaway. I was too young to legally contract the services of a lawyer. And as a minor, Social Services sent me back to my rapist. They all turned me away–a child with young children. I was literally trapped in plain sight. It took me more than ten years to rebuild my life and the lives of my children after extricating myself from that marriage. But other girls are not so lucky.

In 2018, I decided to go public with my story.

My mission has been to bring awareness to our communities and legislators. In doing so,, I have been fortunate enough to connect with other survivors and nonprofits that are fighting to end child marriage in the United States. I have lobbied and provided testimony in several states, and the change has begun. 

Please join the movement to put an end to this human rights abuse. Let's end child marriage in all 50 states before 2030. Equality for all: minimum marriage ages of 18, no exceptions.

Dawn Tyree is a writer, activist, and founding member of The National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the United States. The story of her experience as a child forced into marriage has been published in The New York Times, Reuters, and translated into more than 12 different languages. She was featured in a two-hour documentary on child marriage in the U.S. as part of the A & E Network docuseries, “I Was a Child Bride: The Untold Story” with Elizabeth Vargas that aired April 2019. Her personal essays have been featured in YES! Magazine and the Summer 2019, Winter 2020, and Spring 2020 issues of the Portland Metrozine. Dawn lives in the Pacific Northwest Coastal Range and enjoys hiking, boxing, reading, painting, and is exploring a new-found interest in Japanese earthing.

Students Against Child Marriage is the first student nonprofit nationwide devoted to ending American child marriage. We are recognized as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) public charity by the IRS.

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