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Nuh, a sleepy, sepia-toned town is a two-hour drive from New Delhi and borders the new-age city of Gurgaon, which sports swanky skyscrapers, luxury residential townships, and gargantuan malls. Nuh, too, is fast transforming from rural to urban: Shopping complexes and car showrooms have sprouted up next to mud huts and maize fields. And yet, that economic growth has not translated into much social change—Nuh is still very backward.
It is in Nuh that I met Shilpa, 30. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.) She is introduced to me as “molki,” a derogatory term that translates from Hindi as “purchased.” When Shilpa was 16, her parents entrusted her to a relative who promised to arrange her marriage. He turned out to be a broker in the bride trafficking business and secretly sold her for around 7,500 rupees ($120) to a man in Nuh, in Haryana state. There, Shilpa was treated no better than a slave: Confined to the house so that she wouldn’t draw too much attention, she cooked for his family, took care of his ailing parents, was “shared” among male relatives, bore her husband four children, and then when he died in a car accident five years ago, was kicked out of her home along with her children. She was left without any savings.
It is not clear how many paros (stolen brides) there are in Nuh, but over 9,000 married women out of 10,000 surveyed households in Haryana were purchased from other states, according to a field study conducted by the NGO Drishti Stree Adhyayan Prabodhan Kendra. A 2013 UN report found that the demand for girls of a marriageable age (legally, 18, but nearly 50 percent are married before then) is so high that bride trafficking has turned into a thriving business. According to Shafiq Ur Rehman, the founder of Empower People, an NGO working with survivors of bride trafficking like Shilpa, most of the demand for brides comes from the northwestern states of Haryana, Punjab, Western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. A deep-set culture of patriarchy, mixed with a high gender imbalance and increasing dowry demands, make bride trafficking endemic to this region.
I could tell from the moment I met Shilpa that she was an outsider in Nuh. Her Bengali features and accent were both giveaways. She is from Achuri, a small village in West Bengal, nearly one thousand miles east from Haryana, and one of the key states supplying the brides. In that region, a number of factors push families into selling their daughters (most often unintentionally). The first is abject poverty. Livelihoods often depend on agricultural yields, which in turn, rely on the monsoon rains. But precipitation has grown increasingly unpredictable with climate change. At times, the fields flood, wiping out homes and a life’s worth of possessions. At others, the sky stays dry all season, and crops wither.
The women, themselves, often do not realize they are being sold, but once they do, it is too late to turn back.
In Achuri, Shilpa’s father worked on a farm and owned a little piece of land. Based on Shilpa’s stories, their life seems to be fairly standard: working hard to achieve the basics—putting a roof over their heads and food on the table (though no table in this case). When Shilpa was young, they didn’t own a television, though today they do, and they all have cellphones. It seemed that the family was remarkable only in one way—that they had five daughters, and no sons.
As the youngest daughter, Shilpa was considered a burden on the family. She had one asset, though, that set her apart from her siblings: her fair skin. That highly desirable trait in India made her a hot commodity and her uncle (her father’s youngest brother) whom she referred to as “Chachaji,” told her parents that he would take their daughter to Haryana to marry and “settle” her. Shilpa’s parents were relieved by the arrangement because it meant that they no longer had to scrounge for a dowry. Without one, Shilpa would have been difficult to marry off, and her parents would have had to bear the stigma of keeping an unmarried daughter at home. The uncle even “gifted” them 2,500 rupees ($40), which the parents thought was simply an act of largesse.
On the day of the exchange, Shilpa embarked on a 24-hour train ride from Achuri to Nuh, accompanied by Chachaji. She remembers feeling mostly confused and scared, but had seen women throughout her childhood leaving Achuri to get married, so she assumed that her journey was nothing out of the ordinary. When she arrived in Nuh, she met her intended husband for the first time. He was 20 years her senior.
The number of trafficked women is growing by 20 percent every year.
“Were you unhappy?” I asked her. “No not really,” she replied. For a decade, she thought that her cloistered existence was what married life was meant to be like. But she had accepted her fate then, as she has now.
Bride brokers often masquerade as matchmakers, which traditionally request a fee to arrange a marriage. So it is a relief for families when they receive money in return for their daughters instead of having to pay for services, but most do not realize their daughter is being sold into the bride trade. Even today, Shilpa’s parents do not seem to have a full understanding of what happened so many years ago. Chachaji had told Shilpa’s parents that the family in Nuh were his relatives. Shilpa’s parents definitely did not know that he was in the business of buying and selling brides.
The women, themselves, often do not realize they are being sold, but once they do, it is too late to turn back. Traffickers avoid getting caught because girls like Shilpa, who are far from home and lack social support, rarely lodge complaints about any mistreatment and do not trust the police.
What makes this all so shocking is that, even as India is developing at an astounding rate, the sale of women into marriage is only growing more common. The number of trafficked women is growing by 20 percent every year. This rise in trafficking is directly caused by an acute gender imbalance in India, but the skew is felt most deeply in northwestern states, which are also rigidly conservative, ruled by the khap panchayat or unelected, usually all-male councils that often operate above the law and enforce traditional marriage and caste rules. They have banned cross-caste, as well as inter-clan or village marriages. (In some places in India, marriages between blood relations and between those of the same social rank and geography are all considered incest.) Khaps may forbid a man and a woman in the same gotra, or subsect of a caste, from marrying. These rules further reduce the pool of available women that men can marry. The khaps have begun to relax these stringent rules around marriage, however, after realizing how much they have exacerbated the bride shortage.
Khaps also set cultural norms and values and often permit honor killings, which perpetuate the devaluation of women that underpins bride trafficking. The khaps first came to international attention in 2012 after a group in Haryana blamed young girls’ libidos for inciting a string of rapes across the state. They proposed marrying girls at a younger age to ensure their “sexual appetites” were satisfied within the bounds of marriage. One khap told the New York Times at that time, “Women maintain a family’s honor. Not men. If she cannot keep her honor, it is solely her fault.” With the rise in sexual violence toward women, families seek to marry girls off as soon as possible to “preserve their honor.” They feel that keeping unmarried girls at home increase their chances of being violated and bringing shame upon the family. Somehow, it is thought that when a woman is married, she is less prone to danger. This is of course, not true. But it may be yet another factor that fuels bride trafficking.
NO MODERATION IN MODERNIZATION
When harsh cultural practices meet modern technology, the combination can be lethal. Although India has always been patriarchal, the sharp decline in the sex ratio did not occur until the 1990s with the large-scale availability of a machine intended, of all things, to protect maternal and infant health: the ultrasound. Instead of simply saving lives, its use in India led to a surge in the abortion of female fetuses. Since 1991, 80 percent of India’s districts have recorded a declining sex ratio with the state of Punjab being the worst, followed by Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Himachal Pradesh. Ever year, 500,000 girls are lost to female feticide. An estimated four to 12 million selective abortions of girls have occurred in India in the past three decades, and the massacre has not stopped.
Haryana, where Shilpa was sold, has one of the country’s most skewed sex ratios at 879 men per 1,000 women (the national average is 927 to 1,000, according to the 2011 census). The sex ratio of children under six is worse: 834 girls to 1,000 boys (the national figure is 914 to 1,000). That means in India’s youngest age group, there are 40 million more males than females.
Poorer, rural communities, like Shilpa’s hometown, however, may have limited access to ultrasounds and as a result, exhibit a much more balanced gender ratio. In West Bengal, there are 934 males to 1,000 females. And so they are prime territory for bride traffickers, who target the poorest villages in India, usually in Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, and West Bengal.
Modernization has been unkind to India’s women in yet another way. The speed of economic growth in India is creating a desperate type of consumption that fuels both the demand and the supply side of bride trafficking: weddings and dowries. India’s wedding industry is worth an estimated $25.5 billion with an annual growth rate of 20 to 25 percent. The average middle-class family spends more than $12,158 on a wedding, nearly double the median income of an average middle-class family, which was $625 between 2011 and 2012.
To many, the birth of a daughter signifies a large, crippling expense, one that can be avoided if a female fetus is either aborted or a daughter is handed off to a bride trafficker.
In a sense, the dowry, banned in 1961 after an escalation of dowry-related death and violence, has been replaced by a lavish wedding. The extravagance is not only normal nowadays but necessary. It is considered to be a display of a family’s prosperity and wealth. For some families, failing to provide an elaborate wedding can lead to dishonor or even death.
I recently visited a courthouse in New Delhi where four sets of parents waited their turn to make their case before a judge for the murder of their daughters over unmet wedding or dowry demands. I spoke to one family, the Sharmas, who told me that their daughter Priyanka was poisoned after they had failed deliver a car promised to her husband’s family.
“They wanted a grand wedding,” said the father. “But we could not afford it, so we told them that we would give them a car instead. When we went to buy the car, [the dealers] told us that we would have to sell our farmland, which is our only means of survival. When we couldn’t give them the car immediately, [the husband’s family] killed our daughter. Our daughter alone was not enough for them.”
What happened to Priyanka is, tragically, not uncommon. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 91,200 dowry deaths were reported in the country between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2012.
That is why to many, the birth of a daughter signifies a large, crippling expense, one that can be avoided if a female fetus is either aborted or a daughter is handed off to a bride trafficker.
A SOCIAL DISASTER
With excess males comes excess patriarchy. According to Harvard psychologist Robert Epstein, who has collected data from more than a hundred countries, including the United States, in a male-dominated society, more women are forced out of the workforce either by choice or force. “Extra males affect the social system quite dramatically,” Epstein told me. “Even now, there are women being drugged and kidnapped from Bangladesh and poor Indian states because there is a shortage of young females. Take that effect and magnify it over a period of years. It’s a social disaster.”
The solution cannot be merely an economic one. Studies by Yale Economist Nancy Qian in China show that increasing household income alone has no effect on sex ratios. Increasing male income (holding female income constant) decreases educational levels and survival rates for girls, but has no effect on boys’ educational attainment. In contrast, increasing female income (holding male income constant) increases survival rates for girls. Moreover, increasing the mother’s income increases education for all children.
Even without such data, the women of India seem to understand that if they want to change the status quo, they have to do it themselves. In Haryana, for example, more women have been protesting against sexual violence, harassment, dowry deaths, and female feticide. Last December, two sisters attending college in Rohtak, Haryana, a two-hour drive from Nuh, rose to national fame when they beat up three men who tried molesting them on a public bus. NGOs like Empower People are helping women like Shilpa realize their rights.
Since Shilpa was ousted from her husband’s home, she has worked as a maid in Nuh. And it is only recently that she began speaking up about her experiences as a paro. She does not provide her real name, fearing that her in-laws may find her, abuse her, and extort her for money. Though Shilpa lives hand-to-mouth, often making only enough to provide shelter and basic sustenance for herself and her children, she is happier than when she lived with her husband and his family. She tells me with a smile that for the first time in her life she feels free.
As the number of educated women and those in organized workforces increases—today, those numbers are at their highest (although India continues to have one of the lowest numbers of female participation in the workplace in Asia)—one can only hope that capitalism can finally work in favor of women so that when it comes to the commoditization of things, women are not on that list.
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