ADDIS ABABA (KCBS) – It may sound like a relic from another age, but child marriage remains common in much of the world, and contributes to the leading cause of death among young girls in developing countries.

At a recent global health conference held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a University of California researcher was among those leading the charge to eliminate underage weddings.

In Mozambique, Leopoldina Manjate said girls as young as 12 are routinely forced into marriage, sometimes to men 10 or 20 years older.

“Even if the girl doesn’t know him, they only say, ‘yeah you can take this girl, this girl, this girl,’” she said.

Leopoldina said she’s lucky. She got to marry her boyfriend, but only because of an accident. “Once, we didn’t use the condom, so I got pregnant.” So she became a mother at 18. Lakshmi Sundaram, global coordinator of Girls Not Brides, said 14 million girls are married off every year, in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even the U.S. and Canada.

“This is not an issue that people tend to think still exists and still has such a horrendous effect on girls and on their families,” said Sundaram.

That it does, said Dr. Anita Raj, director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health at UC San Diego. “Many times, it’s about a situation of poverty for the parents, where the parents will have their girls marry at a young age because it is a way to procure financial security for them, but also reduce the financial burden on the house.”

Raj told the International Conference on Family Planning that parents mistakenly believe they’re protecting their young daughters, when in fact, complication from pregnancy is the number one killer of teenage girls in developing countries, and almost all girls who become pregnant are married.

“95 percent of the adolescent births in the developing world occur in the context of marriage,” Raj said. “Every year, 70,000 girls die from pregnancy and childbirth.”

In Cameroon, activist Justine Kwachu Kumeche said she meets with tribal chiefs and their wives, to educate them about the risks. “I see girls get married early. I see them even get pregnant before they are even of age,” she said. “I have a daughter who is 12. I look at her and imagine how a child of that age could get married, and it becomes very traumatizing to me.”

Kate Gilmore, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, said the goal is to end child marriage by the year 2030.

“No culture worth its name requires for its promulgation and its dignity the destruction of a young girl,” Gilmore said.

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