LONDON (TrustLaw) - Sabina's father gave her no say in what is usually one of the most important decisions in a woman's life - marriage.
"It wasn't until a woman came to my house, giving me money and a dress, and said, 'you are now my daughter', that I realised what was happening," recalls Sabina, who was married off as a child in Pakistan and told by her sisters to keep quiet about it.
Every year 10 million girls become child brides. That's one girl every three seconds, according to a study released by development charity Plan UK on Monday.
Being pushed into marriage often ends girls’ chances of going to school. It leaves them at risk of marital rape and domestic violence and it can shorten their lives. Girls aged between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die giving birth than women over the age of 20, Plan said.
Early pregnancy can also lead to a host of health complications including obstetric fistula, a painful condition that causes incontinence that is so debilitating the young woman is either shunned by her community or isolates herself from it.
Plan UK's "Breaking Vows" report found Niger had the highest rate of early marriage at 75 percent, followed by Chad, Mali, Bangladesh and Guinea. Central African Republic, Mozambique, Nepal and Malawi also had rates of 50 percent and over.
However, half of the world's child brides live in South Asia, accounting for more early marriages than any other region, Plan said.
"Why is the international community so silent when one out of every seven girls in the world's poorest countries is married before their fifteenth birthday?" said Plan UK's chief executive, Marie Staunton, in a foreword to the report.
"Child marriage is a practice embedded in many cultures and traditions, is exacerbated by poverty and too often increases after natural disasters and emergencies," she added.
Rates of early and forced marriage are also high in Europe with the highest rates in central and eastern Europe where 2.2 million girls married before their 18th birthday in the period between 2000 and 2007.
Plan said at least 10 percent of adolescents in Britain and France marry before the age of 18, and that the UK's Forced Marriage Unit received more than 1,700 calls for help or advice last year. Plan called on the British government to push early and forced marriage up the international agenda, and for it to make overseas aid that encourages families to send a girl to school, rather into marriage, a priority.
WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?
Women's second-class status in many societies, chronic poverty, harmful traditional practices, poor law enforcement and humanitarian emergencies, such conflict or a natural disaster, are all factors that drive child marriage.
Allowing under-18s to marry is against U.N. conventions. But laws banning the practice are routinely flouted, especially in poor countries where marriage is often deemed the best way to secure a girl's future and lighten her parents' economic load.
For others, marrying off a young girl -- a virgin -- is a question of preserving the family's honour.
Plan said girls are often traded between families to strengthen familial ties -- a practice known as Watta Satta -- in Pakistan. Another practice, vani or swara, involves girls being offered as compensation for wrongdoing committed against a family, tribe or clan.
In other cases, the charity said disasters and conflict force many families to turn to early marriage as a last resort, even though they would never have considered it before. For example, food that is in short supply or simply too expensive to afford has led to the phenomenon of so-called famine brides in Kenya. Drought and fighting in Afghanistan have forced farmers to marry off their daughters for the 'bride price'.
Plan also noted that girls in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka were pressed into marriages with tsunami widowers following the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster -- and in some cases, receiving state subsidies for getting married and starting a family.
Education and keeping girls in school are crucial in fighting early and forced marriage, Plan said.
"Getting and keeping girls in school may be one of the best ways to foster later, consensual marriage, while also contributing to delayed sexual initiation, lower rates of HIV and AIDS and other morbidities, and greater gender equality," the report said.