10/03/2014 13:20 GMT | Updated 10/05/2014 06:59 BST

End Child Marriage: Empowering Today's Adolescent Girls and Tomorrow's Women

The women of tomorrow are entering adolescence today. We know it can be one of the most challenging times in these girls' lives. Let's make sure they have the tools and support they need to overcome these challenges.

Marriage, motherhood, widowhood: by the age of thirteen, Alem had experienced more than what some people will experience in a lifetime..

Married at the age of 10, Alem lost her childhood and was denied her education. Yet she defied the odds and has now set up the Former Child Wives Foundation to support other women who married as children. On International Women's Day, we celebrate women and girls like Alem and their achievements in the face of enduring gender inequality.

Despite all she has been able to achieve, if you ask Alem, she will tell you that the social, personal and economic consequences of child marriage have always stayed with her; child marriage shapes who you are as an adult.

The problems women in the developing world face in their adult lives can often be traced back to their experiences as adolescent girls. For Alem, and the estimated 400 million other women around the world who were married before 18, what they experienced was child marriage.

The international community has largely overlooked the plight of adolescent girls. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did little to address their unique needs and circumstances. But the MDGs come to an end in 2015, and we, as an international community, have a unique chance to put adolescent girls and child marriage at the heart of our renewed efforts to reduce global poverty.

By failing to end child marriage, we are not only letting girls down, we are letting the women of tomorrow down too and, with them, our chance of building a safer, more equitable future for all.

Child marriage disempowers girls for life

Alem's story shows that when a girl marries as a child, she is disempowered for life. Marriage marks the end of her learning opportunities, cuts her off from her friends and family, and prematurely introduces her to childbearing.

Now imagine this happening to millions of girls. If current rates continue, 142 million girls will be married off as children in the next decade. This has devastating consequences for their wellbeing, but also for their families and communities.

In a recent report on child marriage in Malawi, Human Rights Watch, a member of Girls Not Brides, documents how child marriage prevents girls and women from participating in all spheres of society, exposes them to domestic and sexual abuse, and puts them at risk of injury or death during pregnancy.

To make progress on gender equality, we cannot afford to wait until girls reach adulthood. We must reach out to them during the crucial formative years of adolescence.

Investing in adolescent girls today means empowered women tomorrow

Fortunately, there is more and more recognition on the importance of investing in adolescent girls. Earlier this year, India launched its first national adolescent health strategy with the aim of providing health information and services to adolescents - especially girls - and of breaking the intergenerational cycle of poor health and poverty.

And just this week, Justine Greening, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, said it was time to break the silence on early and forced marriage, and highlighted the British government's commitment to take action.

We do need action.

We need funding for programmes and services targeting adolescent girls, to ensure they continue their education through secondary school. We need governments to change discriminatory legislation that bans married adolescent girls from attending school. We need everyone who can make a difference in the lives of girls, from religious leaders to school teachers, to come on board.

Ultimately, the lives of girls will improve when change happens in the individual communities where child marriage is prevalent. That's why it is fundamentally important that funding is available to support small grassroots organisations and their efforts to improve girls' chances within their own communities.

Child marriage in the post-2015 agenda

International Women's Day is one day out of the year, but there are plenty of opportunities in 2014 for world leaders, governments, donors, and civil society organisations to put child marriage, and its impact on adolescent girls, front and centre.

Next week, States will meet in New York for the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the only UN body exclusively focused on gender equality. They will have the opportunity to evaluate progress made on women's and girls' rights in the last 15 years and formulate clear proposals to further gender equality.

Ending child marriage and investing in adolescent girls must be a strategic part of these proposals.

The women of tomorrow are entering adolescence today. We know it can be one of the most challenging times in these girls' lives. Let's make sure they have the tools and support they need to overcome these challenges.