By Emma Batha
LONDON, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Child marriage has soared in Yemen as families struggle to feed their children amid a conflict that has left the country on the brink of famine, the U.N. children's agency said on Monday.
More than two thirds of girls in Yemen are married off before they reach 18, compared to half of girls before the conflict escalated, UNICEF said in a report to mark the second anniversary of the war.
It said parents struggling with deepening poverty were increasingly marrying off their daughters to reduce costs and the number of mouths to feed or because they believed a husband's family could offer better protection.
Around 80 percent of families in Yemen are in debt or are borrowing money to feed their children, the agency said.
Dowry payments - paid by the husband's family in Yemen - are an additional incentive for poor parents to marry daughters off early, it added.
There is no minimum age of marriage in Yemen where campaigners say girls are sometimes wed at eight or nine. Some die from rape injuries or childbirth complications after becoming pregnant before their bodies are fully developed.
Yemen's hunger crisis follows two years of civil war pitting the Iran-allied Houthi group against a Saudi-backed coalition, which has caused economic collapse and severely restricted food and fuel imports.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict and around 3 million people have fled their homes, although some are now returning.
Early marriage is especially common in Al Hudaydah, Hajjah and Ibb governorates that host large numbers of uprooted people, UNICEF said.
"One of the first casualties when families are displaced and lose their incomes is girls," UNICEF's spokesman in Yemen, Rajat Madhok, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Initial results from a new UNICEF study on child marriage suggest around 44 percent of girls and women are married under the age of 15 in some parts of Yemen.
Bilkis, 16, told researchers how life had become unbearable after she was married at 13.
"I was a child who was not mentally and physically able to be a wife," the report quoted her as saying. "I was warned not to do anything that children do. Through the window, I could watch other children play."
Child marriage not only endangers girls' lives but deprives them of education and opportunities, and increases the risk of domestic and sexual violence, campaigners say.
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)