Is this the beginning of the end of child marriage?

Sitting from left: Yvone Kambiza, 16, Alinafe Naison, 19, Catherine Julio Funsani, 21, and Katrina Kampingo, 15, former underage brides in Malawi.

Lakshmi Sundaram is the executive director at Girls Not Brides.

(CNN)Today marks the Day of the African Child. This day was created by the African Union to commemorate a tragedy -- the massacre of hundreds of children in Soweto, South Africa who were demonstrating for the basic right to a decent education. Since then, the day has been used as an opportunity to focus a global spotlight on the injustices African children face, and on the actions we all need to take to ensure they can realize their rights.

Lakshmi Sundaram is the executive director at Girls Not Brides.
This year, the theme for the day is ending child marriage in Africa, and it represents a timely call to end a practice that devastates the lives of millions of girls across the continent.
    We have seen promising positive commitments from the African Union and African leaders on the issue. We have also seen civil society mobilizing across the continent especially in reaching out to the communities where child marriage is prevalent. Many use the Girls Not Brides global network to amplify their voices and share lessons of what works in curbing this practice.
    This is crucial work since in sub-Saharan Africa, 40% of women are married as children, according to UNICEF. These girls are married off before they are physically or emotionally mature enough to become wives or mothers. Child marriage is an issue which affects girls in almost every country on the continent to a greater or lesser extent -- ten of the fifteen countries worldwide with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa. In Niger, for example, as many as 76% of girls are married before they reach the age of 18; in Chad and the Central African Republic, it is 68%.
    Child marriage robs girls of their education, their health and their future. Over 60% of child brides in Africa have received no formal education whatsoever, and girls who give birth under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women who have children in their early 20s.
    Without major progress on this issue, the number of child brides will double by 2050 and child marriage will continue to hamper Africa's development. In fact, the persistence of child marriage has hindered Africa's efforts to achieve six of the eight Millennium Development Goals. That's why it is so crucial that we tackle child marriage head on in the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
    This week, the African Union is hosting a summit at which we hope African Heads of State will adopt a common African position on child marriage. Along with the SDGs, this represents a significant opportunity to ensure that commitments are quickly turned into practical national strategies and action plans that are comprehensive, well-resourced and involve all relevant actors including civil society so that the next generation of African girls can embrace a brighter, better future free from the shadow of child marriage.