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In this Foreign Affairs Unedited podcast, Ira Trivedi talks with Rebecca Chao, Deputy Web Editor, about gender politics and the bride trafficking business in India.
Read the article, When When a Bride-to-Be Is a Bride to Buy.
This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.
CHAO: How did you first hear about paros, stolen brides in India?
TRIVEDI: While I was looking at abortion clinics, and dowry practices, and feticides... Feticides in Haryana, because this is a state where this is very, very... There's a very bad situation. This is where I actually I came across... I came across my first... Came across a paro.
I was in a small little restaurant or a dhaba, as we call them here, a roadside café. And she was... She was just cleaning around the dhaba, and I just started talking to her. And that's really how the story began.
So, when I go back to Haryana to look at stories, not with paros specifically, but with feticide, and with dowry practices, I would often touch base with her. And so, for me, it's a sort of a relationship that I've built over a while and that's why it was very easy for me to talk to her and get this sort of information from her and very candid and frank information from her.
CHAO: Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between paro and your research with dowry and feticide?
TRIVEDI: Well, there's a direct relationship, because... So, first talking about feticide. Because female fetuses are aborted in such high rates, there is acute sex ratio. And the interesting thing is that, we haven't actually seen the extent of this feticide, because it became really bad around the early 2000s, and those babies haven't yet come of age yet; they haven't become of marriageable age. And so, that's the number one reason that there is a big, a big gender gap and there's not enough women in the society for marriage.
CHAO: So then, in that case, why are they referred to, these women, these paro referred to as 'stolen brides' instead of sold brides?
TRIVEDI: Because they are from other states. I think that's the primary reason because they are not part of the local culture. They're not part of the local community or even the state. They're brought in from various places in India that are selectively chosen that are very poor, and where there maybe more balanced sex ratios.
So, that's why West Bengal is so popular, because West Bengal, even culturally, women are quite empowered there in the sense that it's not as much of a patriarchal society as parts of North Western India. So, we see with southern India where Andhra Pradesh, a Southern India states where a lot of brides are trafficked from. So I think it's because women are brought in from other places and that's why the term "stolen" is used. It's as if they were, they belong somewhere else and yet they were brought into a different state.
CHAO: For Shilpa, can you tell us a little bit more about her childhood in West Bengal and then how she became a paro?
TRIVEDI: Her story is typical. She was from a very poor family. Her father was a farmer in a small village in West Bengal, far quite far removed from anything really urban. The one exceptional thing which stands out is that Shilpa had four sisters and no brothers. So having five sisters and five daughters for a farmer is really considered to be unlucky. It's like a curse.
TRIVEDI: What I found quite interesting is that her parents seemed to be, they never talked about the fact that they felt overly burdened by their daughters or they did not have a son. Which I found was quite interesting. Shilpa was the youngest of all of her sisters and also the prettiest, and in India, pretty means fair skinned. So while everyone else in her family was dark skinned, she was fair and considered to be quite beautiful. So at a very young age, Shilpa's... Who she identifies as chachaji, which is "father's younger brother." So I don't think in actuality he was her father's younger brother.
So chachaji, as she called him came and said that I will get her married to a friend of mine in the state of Haryana and her parents thought that this would be good for Shilpa. They thought that this would give her opportunity, that this would give her... This would empower her. This would give her a better life than she would be able to lead in Achuri and plus they had four other daughters to think about, to marry off and to pay dowries for. In a place like Achuri, if there is no dowry, she will not find a husband and having an unmarried daughter at home in these parts is considered worse than death, quite literally.
So, she went off with chachaji to Haryana to a town called Nuh, which is about a 1,000 miles west of Achuri. And this is where she was sold to her husband who was 20 years older than her and she never heard from chachaji again. She lost touch with her parents because, we have to realize that this was almost 14 years ago, though she herself is not very clear about this. She thinks it's around 12 to 14 years ago, but she doesn't have a clear idea of how much time has gone by. So this is what happened to her when she moved to Haryana.
CHAO: How does she describe her life as a paro? Does she understand what it was and that she was sold?
TRIVEDI: I still don't think she fully comprehends what happened to her. For many, many years after she was sold, she lived with her husband and with her husband's family and with his brothers and she was raped by several of them, several times. And she thought this was part of married life. This is what she thought was standard to girls that got married. So she did not really think this was anything extraordinary that was happening to her and then she had four children, in a very quick sequence. Then, her husband died. Her husband died in a road accident and very shortly after her husband's death she was actually removed from her household.
And her husband's brothers and her husband's parents said that we just can't support you. And I think this is... If she had in fact been from the local community, this would not have happened to her because marriage in a place like this is a familial relationship. So, if Shilpa was from Haryana, her parents, her brothers and sisters would have had relationships with all of her husband's family. But because none of her family had relationships with his family, it was very easy for them to just kick her out and say, "Now, leave."
CHAO: I see. And so what is she doing now and how is she coping?
TRIVEDI: So, over the past few years, she's built a life for herself. She's done all sorts of work. She's done labor. She's done building, sort of construction work, all forms of manual labor. And then, she works now as a maid for various small families in the same town actually where she was abused. Not in... The place where her husband's home is, is a little bit further away, but she's not very far away from that place. She doesn't feel comfortable to go back to her village. I asked her and she said that's not even an option.
I think she accepts her life. She's told me that she accepted her life then and she accepts it now. She does feel like she's more free, that she has more... That she can do and feel more than she did in the past. She's also beginning to realize, just beginning to realize what happened to her. She is involved with... Deals with this very specific problem of trafficked women and trafficked brides. So, she's beginning to get very, very slowly involved with the organization.
CHAO: I see. And how did she get involved with the organization, it's 'Empower People'?
TRIVEDI: It was just, I think word of mouth and just meeting one person after meeting another person how she found this particular place, speaking to other women who she worked with. When she was living with her husband and his family, she never really met a lot of people. She was always really within the house. She was cloistered in her household. And one of the reasons is because she wasn't from Haryana. She wasn't Haryanvi. She was Bengali and you could see that in the way that she looked and in the way that she talked. Though now she sounds very, very local, at least to me.
Since she left or since she was kicked out, she's met more people and she comes into contact every day with new people at the restaurant that she works at and the different households, the different homes that she services.
CHAO: What do you think would be a solution or the beginning of a solution to this, to the issue of paros?
TRIVEDI: Look, I think the first thing is for people to hear about it. And I'm really, really grateful for Foreign Affairs that they published this piece because if no one really knows what's happening, then no action can be taken. There is really no short-term solution. There are NGOs, like Empower People which are coming up, which is positive. It makes a difference to the lives of women like Shilpa. But of course, we need a much, much longer term solution. We need to solve the issue of feticide, which is only getting worse every single day in India.
And as I spoke to you earlier, the worst hasn't yet come. And dowry practices, there needs to really be a very, very, sort of a national campaign against dowry. That's the only way that this will get eradicated because it exists from the poorest of families, all the way up to the richest.