There are laws against this practice in most countries but there is often a lack of enforcement or commitment among community members, Schlecht said. Often the community members will not understand the purpose of the law or the need to abide by it, she said.
"I think there is still progress to be made on the legal side," she said. "The law is probably the first step but there is a lot of community sensitization and mobilization that still is needed around that issue. There does seem to be a gap at this point."
And that gap is not easy to close.
"Because this is so deeply embedded in issues around poverty and cultural and social norms, just changing the law doesn't always lead to a change in the practice," Hempel said.
How it affects girls
"Women who are married this young become invisible in their communities," Hempel said. "So it is both a human rights violation and something that perpetuates the cycle of poverty."
Girls who marry at such an early age normally get pregnant sooner, are at an increased risk for maternal death and have worse reproductive health outcomes, Schlecht said. The risk for HIV also increases in marriages with a large age discrepancy. But lack of education may be the most crippling effect for girls.
"When a girl becomes married and pregnant, rarely is she able to continue school," Schlecht said. "It is then hard for them to earn an independent income so they become dependent on their spouse or family members."
As a result, child brides have limited opportunities and skills, and there is a chance they will become single but still be responsible for a family, Schlecht said. Having babies at such a young age does not help the cause, either.
"The consequences are devastating for young girls," Kennedy said. "Early marriage leads to early child bearing when their bodies are not physically ready."
This leads to a high rate of young girls dying during childbirth or with babies that tend to be unhealthier, she said.
Statistics about child brides are telling. Girls who complete secondary education are six times less likely to be child brides, and child brides are more than twice as likely to be beaten by their husbands, Kennedy said.
Breaking the cycle of young marriage is key to ending the practice in a generation or two, Hempel said. When girls marry later, their children and family members are less likely to marry young, she said.
Awareness and solutions
Awareness of the problem is increasing, as the legal age for marriage has been changed to 18 instead of 15 in most countries, Hempel said. But more is needed to reverse a complex problem.
India is one country that has seen declining rates in child marriage, and that may be due to awareness and the unique approach against it, Kennedy said. India has implemented a cash incentive that is issued to young women. The catch is that they can only redeem it once they reach 18 and have never been married. These are the kind of innovative solutions that may foster change, Kennedy said.
Groups and advocates are looking at the use of mobile technology and media platforms to raise awareness, Hempel said, with positive results.
"One of the factors that helps girls is to connect to other women who are not family members," she said. "So there is potential through cellular technology to help with that."
The U.N. General Assembly established an International Day of the Girl Child to give the issue of child marriage a global stage. The day was celebrated for the first time on Oct. 11.
The day was a success, Kennedy said, and she noted that more than 10,000 letters were sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Twitter hashtags and retweets were in the millions.
Still, raising awareness is only the first step.
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