NEW DELHI (AP) — A significant fall in the number of child marriages in South Asia has helped reduced the rate of marriage for girls globally, the U.N. children's agency said Tuesday.

More educational opportunities for young girls, government investments in adolescent girls and strong advocacy about the illegality of child marriage saw 25 million fewer child marriages in the last decade.

UNICEF says progress in India helped reduced the risk of a girl in South Asia marrying before her 18th birthday to about 30 percent from nearly 50 percent.

Some 650 million women living today were married as children.

A girl forced to marry young is less likely to finish school and more likely to be abused and suffer pregnancy complications, said Anju Malhotra, UNICEF's principal gender adviser. Such marriages also are more likely to perpetuate poverty.

In India, the legal age for marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. Parents responsible for underage marriages can be imprisoned and government programs aim to encourage girls to stay in school, but the practice persists in a largely conservative culture where marriage is viewed as the most important event in a girl's life.

The global burden of child marriage has shifted to sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNICEF data, about 1 in 3 of the world's most recently married girls are in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 1 in 5 a decade ago.

"Each and every child marriage prevented gives another girl the chance to fulfill her potential," said Malhotra. "But given the world has pledged to end child marriage by 2030, we're going to have to collectively redouble efforts to prevent millions of girls from having their childhoods stolen through this devastating practice."