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Associated Press
Two Indian girls react to the camera as they play on a street outside their roadside shanty, on International Day of the Girl Child in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. In India, where there are 914 girls under age 6 for every 1,000 boys, discrimination happens through abortions of female fetuses and sheer neglect of young girls, despite years of high-profile campaigns to address the issue. Every few years, federal and state governments announce new incentives, from free meals to free education, to encourage people to take care of their girls.

Globally, millions of young girls suffer from malnutrition and disease, are denied education, married young or trafficked for profit simply because of their sex.

A new effort by the United Nations hopes to curb these trends. Today, the U.N. sponsored its first annual Day of the Girl to promote awareness of the discrimination girls across the world face for both their sex and age.

The project to create an international girl awareness day was originally spearheaded by Plan International and Canadian SIDA. In December 2011, the U.N. approved the resolution and encouraged all members to observe the day of awareness.

After the announcement, Plan Chief Executive Officer Nigel Chapman said, "The Day of the Girl puts a special focus on the needs of girls throughout the world. We know that in many countries girls get left behind in all areas of life from school to work and in the worst cases arent even allowed to be born."

For the inaugural Day of the Girl, the U.N. is focusing on the plight of forced child marriages.

More than 30 percent of girls worldwide are married before the age of 18; nearly 14 percent are married before the age of 15. Such marriages occur across the globe, in Asia, Africa, South America and even Europe and North America.

Child brides face many challenges including limited access to education, experiences of physical and sexual abuse and an increased risk of maternal death. Factors such as poverty, cultural traditions and lack of education contribute to the ongoing practice of marrying off young girls.

A joint statement from a group of U.N. human rights experts stated, "Girls who are forced to marry face a life of violence in the home where they are physically and sexually abused, suffer from inhuman and degrading treatment and ultimately slavery. No girl should be forced to marry. No girl should be committed to servile marriage, domestic servitude and sexual slavery. No girl should suffer from violations to their right to health, education, non-discrimination and freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence. Not a single one."

While efforts have been made to decrease forced child marriages, the U.N. estimates 10 million girls annually are forced into marriage. Groups such as Girls not Brides and Blue Veins are trying to change that number.

Lakshmi Sundaram, the global coordinator of Girls Not Brides told Pakistan's Daily Times, The rate of child marriage is declining in many countries, but the pace of change is too slow. Day of the Girl is an opportunity to highlight successful programmes that are helping end child marriages. It is also an occasion to focus on what still needs to be done to bring an end to a practice that has a devastating impact on the lives of so many girls.

Part of the Day of the Girl initiative involves not only increasing awareness surrounding the issues girls face, but also highlighting the potential they hold, particularly when educated.

Increasing the numbers of girls in school raises a country's GDP 3 percent on average. Studies show educated women reinvest 90 percent of their income in their family. Such investments ripple outward to impact communities and generations.

The Half the Sky movement, which raises awareness about women's issues throughout the world,states on its website, "One of the most effective ways to fight poverty and bolster poor communities is through investing in education, particularly that of girls. Schooling not only can be a precursor for women and girls to stand up to the injustices they witness, it can also help foster economic growth and stability."

Learn more about the issues facing young girls on USAID, Day of the Girl or U.N. Women.