11/07/2012 04:09 BST | Updated 09/09/2012 06:12 BST

Changing the Lives of Child Brides and Young Mothers in Africa

As a child growing up in the UK I was entitled to an education and had the freedom to make choices about the opportunities that came my way.

But while I was studying at school, dreaming of all the things I might do in the future, young girls like 13-year-old Tanzanian Sikujua, were learning to take care of their husbands and babies.

Now 17, Sikujua explains that she was forced to marry a much older man because her father was sick and needed the money to go to hospital - it is common place for the groom to pay the father a 'bride price', which is usually a gift of cattle.

Although shocking, her experience of being a child bride and an extremely young mother is all too common in Tanzania, particularly in the Mara region.

I recently visited the Children's Dignity Forum on the edge of Lake Victoria to discover how Comic Relief and the UK government are changing lives through their jointly funded Common Ground Initiative.

The initiative works with members of the African Diaspora - those with African heritage and strong links to the continent - who have set up organisations which aim to change the lives of those who need it across some of Africa's poorest countries. FORWARD are a UK based women's organisation led by people of African heritage. They support Children's Dignity Forum with funding from the Common Ground Initiative.

Dr Monica Mhojam, co-founder of the Forum, tells me that although the legal age to marry here is 15, it's normal for young girls in this region of Tanzania to marry at 12 and 13 to help get their families out of poverty.

The Forum is working tirelessly to give girls the confidence and knowledge to make their own choices about when to marry and start a family. Statistics show that girls under 18 are five times more likely to die giving birth than women in their 20s, demonstrating just how dangerous early motherhood can be for these young teens and the vital importance of this project.

Another consequence of early marriage and pregnancy is that girls usually lose their chance to an education.

They are often taken out of school to care for their new husband and babies, and it's within these households that they are often subjected to physical abuse.

Young and scared, Sikujua had to endure daily violence from the hands of her alcoholic husband. Eventually she found the courage to run back home and is now living happily with her new husband and two children.

She credits the Children's Dignity Forum for giving her the confidence to take control of her life and avoid being forced into another bad marriage. As one of their peer educators she now encourages young girls to avoid the pitfalls she encountered.

Monica, 50, wants all girls and young women like Sikujua to be free to avoid early marriage and pregnancy and have the choice to finish education, get a job and aspire to a better future.

She now lives in Scotland with her family and works as a lawyer, but having been born and raised in a Tanzanian village, where many of her friends were forced to marry as children, she is perfectly placed to understand the issues here.

As a member of the African Diaspora, she wants to show communities here that girls don't need to marry and have babies at such an early age. "if they're educated they can get a good job and help their families financially, as I have done, " she says.

Monica is a true inspiration and I feel so privileged to have been invited here to meet her, Sikujua and others like her.

It's clear to see that thousands of children and young girls are hugely benefitting from the Children's Dignity Forum and the work of African's living in the UK.

Thanks to funding from the Common Ground Initiative fewer girls are becoming child brides and having babies so young, saving precious lives and helping to reclaim their futures.