“I’ve never experienced happiness in my marriage. I’ve never seen the benefit of being married,” Chimwemwe told me when I interviewed her in a small village in rural Malawi.

Angela, 15, holds her newborn baby girl in a hospital in Tanzania. Unmarried and living with her parents, she hopes to continue with her studies and one day become a nurse. Shinyanga, Tanzania. August 4, 2014.

Chimwemwe was just 12-years-old when she married a 17-year-old boy to escape poverty at home. Like many girls I have interviewed in South Sudan, Tanzania, and Malawi about their marriages, she was hoping for a life of love and prosperity, but instead endured poverty and violence at the hands of her husband.

In sub-Saharan Africa, about one in four girls marry before age 18. Statistics show that African nations account for 17 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage globally. For example, according to new UNICEF data, 76 percent of girls in Niger and close to 70 percent of girls in Central African Republic and Chad marry before they turn 18. In Malawi, one in every two girls marry before age 18.

It’s encouraging that African leaders have put child marriage high on their agenda. This week, at the conclusion of the 28th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, leaders held a high-level meeting on an AU campaign to end child marriage.

The campaign has already seen African heads of states adopt an agreement on child marriage back in June 2015, which sets out detailed steps that governments should take to reduce this harmful practice. Steps include enacting and implementing laws that set the minimum marriage age at 18 or above – with no exceptions – and putting in place comprehensive and well-financed national plans of action.

But despite growing support from African leaders, progress to end child marriage has been slow. Without accelerating changes on the ground, the number of child brides will double by 2050.

There is no simple solution for ending child marriage. Ensuring that girls have access to decent education is important. It’s also key that community and religious leaders understand and commit to their respective roles in ending child marriage. But we should also constantly assess if efforts to end child marriage are working or not. If they are not, Africa’s leaders should speak out and act promptly. 

The government of Malawi should increase efforts to end widespread child and forced marriage, or risk worsening poverty, illiteracy, and preventable maternal deaths in the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today, ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2014.