NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's high rate of child marriage is a major reason for its large number of maternal and infant deaths, said a UNICEF report released Thursday. Child brides "become mothers long before their bodies are physically mature for pregnancy", said UNICEF's Karin Hulshof at the launch of the annual "The State of the World's Children" report in the capital New Delhi. "The younger a girl is when she gets pregnant, the greater the health risk to her and her child," Hulshof said. She said that child marriage prevents many girls from continuing their education, leaving them unaware of the risks and responsibilities of pregnancy and less likely to seek medical attention and immunise their babies. More than 40 percent of the world's child marriages take place in India, a majority of them among poor, rural residents, even though the legal age to wed is 18. In 2005 India's maternal mortality rate was 450 per 100,000 live births, compared to just 8 per 100,000 in industrialised countries in the same year. The neonatal mortality rate was 39 per 1,000 live births in 2004, more than ten times the rate in developed countries. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are also five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, said Hulshof. She said progress had been slow in reducing maternal and newborn deaths but highlighted success in government-sponsored rural health initiatives that train health workers and offer cash incentives to women who seek post-natal care. The report suggests improving rural infrastructure so more women have access to proper health facilities and mobilising communities so that women are encouraged to continue their education and delay marriage and childbirth. "Saving lives requires an environment that empowers women and respects their rights," Hulshof said. UNICEF has made reducing child and maternal mortality numbers one of its Millennium Development Goals, to be reached by 2015.