26/11/2015 15:00 GMT | Updated 26/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Internet Dating Is the Norm for Millions - For Millions More, It's Child Marriage

Finding love, it seems, has never been so easy. Most of us probably know at least one couple who met online, as the proliferation of dating websites and apps in the UK has made internet introductions the new normal.

The success of internet dating lies in the fact that these liaisons are based on choice, not chance. The power to choose if, who, where and when.

For the millions who use their phones to find their next partner, never has there been so much control. But for many millions more entering lifelong relationships, choice and control doesn't come into it.

Approximately 15million girls worldwide are married each year - that's one girl, aged under 18, married off against her will every two seconds. Married to a man chosen for her, sometimes two or three times her age, and who she may never lay eyes on until the day of the ceremony.

The contrast could hardly be starker: while for some using the internet to choose exactly who to meet is now the norm, for others it's the opposite that's true. It's a juxtaposition we at Plan UK highlighted earlier this week in a first-of-its-kind stunt with location based dating app, Happn, when for one day only, the ability of the service's 400,000 London users to choose who to connect with was temporarily curtailed.

A stunt such as this might seem extreme. But at present, the fact is that not enough progress is being made to reduce the incidence of this deeply harmful practice, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. We're committed to doing what we can to keep it on the agenda.

The evidence couldn't be clearer. Early and forced marriage is a violation of human rights that robs girls of their childhood. A child bride is more likely to drop out of school, suffer violence and abuse and give birth before she is ready. Every year, 70,000 girls die in labour because their young bodies just aren't ready.

Yet, in spite of these well-known risks, predictions made by the Overseas Development Institute suggest that the numbers of child brides in sub-Saharan Africa is in fact set to increase by 50 per cent over the next 15 years, as modest gains in the proportion of those married as children is offset by significant population growth.

My hope is that a political consensus is developing that this is just not good enough - that we need to do more. As I write, in Lusaka, Zambia, leaders from across Africa are gathered for the latest Girls' Summit, a forum to work out how to achieve the breakthrough millions of African girls at risk of early marriage so desperately need.

We're calling for radical action by governments at all levels: from making sure the right laws are in place (following the recent lead of Guatemala), to ensuring that good quality education and health services are provided, services that we know can reduce rates of child marriage.

And crucially, as well as working with families and community leaders, we're demanding that young people are given a platform to put forward their views on how best to address a problem that above all concerns them. I'm proud that the Youth for Change movement, funded by the UK government and supported by Plan, who represent young activists in Tanzania, the UK, Pakistan and Bangladesh are in Zambia to take part in the discussions.

Youth for Change's global activism recognises that child marriage affects girls the world over. Recent research conducted by Plan in Asia reveals that child marriage, driven by poverty and a lack of education is too often the norm. In Bangladesh, a quarter of girls are married by the age of just 14.

Given the ever growing sense of choice and control that we now enjoy in our own lives, statistics such as that give real pause for reflection. At that tender age, thoughts of marriage should be confined to playground games and make believe. It's surely not beyond us to make that the case.

To find out more about Plan's work to reduce the prevalence of child marriage around the world, search 'end child marriage.'