Decline of child marriage in populous nations like India has led to the reduction in the harmful practice globally over the past 25 years, according to a new UN report.
The study For every child, every right - The Convention on the Rights of the Child at a crossroads' by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), said that although the world has made historic gains over the past three decades in improving children's lives, urgent action is required if the poorest children are to feel the impact.
It noted that the harmful practice of child marriage is in decline globally and macro-level factors, such as higher social expenditures, economic growth and women's empowerment, tend to be associated with lower rates of child marriage.
The report said that these factors are mirrored at the household level, where girls and young women are far less likely to be married before age 18 if they live in wealthier, more educated households in which women have more decision-making power and higher labour-force participation.
"The countries that have made the greatest absolute reductions are low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia that had a high initial prevalence of child marriage. Declines in child marriage in populous nations such as India have driven the global advance, it said.
Child marriage in South Asia has almost halved over the past 25 years, falling from 59 per cent to 30 per cent today.
The report also noted that evidence shows progress is possible in diverse contexts. The largest relative declines over the past decade have occurred in some upper-middle to high-income countries. These countries, which already had low levels of child marriage, have reduced them even closer to elimination.
Citing the example of India, it said legal reforms, expanded services, girls' empowerment programmes and behaviour change are urgently needed to accelerate progress on reducing child marriage.
Legal reforms are most successful when they are accompanied by incentives to comply with the law and meaningful consequences for offenders.
"India, for example, provides incentives in the form of cash or in-kind transfers to families whose daughters remain unmarried until a certain age. Interventions that address both girls and their communities are also important. Awareness and empowerment programmes are often most effective where local faith-based leaders can be persuaded to lead the charge'.
However, despite these gains, millions of girls around the world remain at risk of child marriage. At the national level, a number of countries have seen little or no progress and require urgent action. Even within countries that have made substantial strides against child marriage, progress is not always equal across regions.
The study calls on countries to recommit to promises made under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted 30 years ago.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely and rapidly adopted international treaty in history, and has been ratified by more than 190 countries.
It acknowledges childhood, which lasts through age 18, as a special time in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity.
UNICEF reported that since its adoption, the global rate for under-five mortality has dropped by around 60 per cent, while the proportion of undernourished children has almost halved.
The Convention has also influenced numerous constitutions, laws and policies that reflect its guiding principles, which include non-discrimination, the right to protection and acting in the best interests of the child.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore noted that while increasing numbers of children are living longer, better and healthier lives, the odds continue to be stacked against the poorest and most vulnerable.
"In addition to the persistent challenges of health, nutrition and education, children today have to contend with new threats like climate change, online abuse and cyberbullying," she said.
"Only with innovation, new technologies, political will and increased resources will we help translate the vision of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into a reality for all children everywhere.