A global goal of ending child marriage by 2030 will not be achieved unless the world steps up its efforts, campaigners warned at a meeting Monday aimed at stopping the practice.
Twelve million girls a year are married before the age of 18 with often devastating consequences for their health and education, and ending the practice by 2030 is one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Rates have fallen in recent years, but advocates say the practice remains widespread in some parts of the world, raising doubts about the 2030 target.
"Unless we strengthen and accelerate our work in the coming years, because of population growth, we might not be able to end child marriage in one generation," said Mabel van Oranje, who chairs the campaign group Girls Not Brides.
She urged governments to put their national strategies into action and said they must begin to see the economic benefits of preventing girls ending up as young brides.
"If we have a world without child marriage, this world will be trillions and trillions dollars wealthier," van Oranje told the more than 500 delegates at the conference in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
A World Bank study last year showed child marriage will cost developing countries trillions of dollars in the next decade, hampering global efforts to eradicate poverty.
About 25 million early marriages have been prevented in the last decade, with the biggest decline seen in South Asia, UNICEF said in March.
But the global rate of decline is too slow at just under 2 percent a year, said Anju Malhotra, principal adviser on gender and development for the U.N. children's agency. It needs to speed up to 23 percent a year to meet the 2030 target.
"It is a sobering picture," said Malhotra, adding that the practice persists in sub-Saharan Africa.
Poverty is often the key reason for child marriage, but protracted conflicts in Syria, for example, or extreme weather in countries including Bangladesh, Mali and Niger have put more girls at risk, campaigners say.
Early marriage increases the risk of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth, as well as making it more likely that girls quit school, they add.
The three-day meeting that began Monday is hosted by Girls Not Brides, which groups over 1,000 organizations committed to ending a practice that affects 650 million women and girls today.
Among delegates was 17-year-old Hadiqa Bashir from Pakistan.
Bashir escaped an attempt by her family to marry her off when she was 11, and went on to set up an all-girl group, Girls United for Human Rights, that campaigns against early marriages.
"It's about changing perception of the people and the way they think," she told Reuters, saying she hopes to find new inspiration from the meeting.