Indian girls unwanted before birth but in short supply at marrying age
04.04.06By Justin Huggler
INDIA – Haryana Tripla’s parents sold her for US$295 ($480) to a man who had come looking for a wife. He took her away with him, hundreds of kilometres across India, to the villages outside New Delhi. It was the last time she would ever see her home. For six months she lived with him in the village, although there was never any formal marriage. Then, two weeks ago, her husband, Ajmer Singh, ordered her to sleep with his brother, who could not find a wife. When Tripla refused, he took her out into the fields and beheaded her with a sickle. When Rishi Kant, an Indian human rights campaigner, tracked down Tripla’s parents in the state of Jharkhand and told them the news, her mother broke down in tears. “But what could we do?” she asked him. “We are facing so much poverty we had no choice but to sell her.” Tripla was a victim of the common practice in India of aborting baby girls, because parents only want boys. Although she was born and lived into early adulthood, it was the abortions that caused her death. In the villages of Haryana, just outside New Delhi, abortions of baby girls have become so common that there is a drastic shortage of women. Unable to find wives locally, the men have resorted to buying women from poorer parts of India. Just 40km from the glitzy shopping centres and apartment complexes of New Delhi, there is a slave market for women. Last week, an Indian doctor became the first to be jailed for telling a woman the sex of her unborn baby and offering to arrange an abortion. India is trying to stamp out the scourge of female feticide. But in the villages of Haryana, the damage has already been done. Indian parents want boys because girls are seen as a financial burden: the parents have to provide an expensive dowry for their weddings, while sons will bring money into the family when they marry, and have better employment prospects. But in Haryana, so many female fetuses have been aborted that there aren’t women for the men to marry. The result is a thriving market in women known in local slang as baros, who have been trafficked from poorer parts of India. Anyone in the villages can tell you the going rates. The price ranges from 3000 rupees ($109) to 30,000 rupees for a particularly beautiful woman. Skin colour and age are important pricing criteria. So is whether the woman is a virgin. When the police arrested Tripla’s husband, he could not provide a marriage certificate. Generally, there is no real marriage. The women are sexual brides only. Sometimes, brothers share one woman between them. Often, men who think they have got a good deal on a beautiful “bride” will sell her on at a profit. Munnia was sold when she was only 17. Considered particularly beautiful, she was sold on three times, to different men, in the space of a few weeks. Like Tripla, she came from Jharkhand, but she was lucky: she escaped. Today she is in a Government shelter for women. “My father sold me to a man called Dharma,” she says. “I don’t know if he paid for me or not. I came to New Delhi with my mother, and then Dharma took me to his village. He used to beat me very badly. He used to hit me until I allowed him to sleep with me.” She was with Dharma just 20 days before he sold her on. Her route criss-crossed northern India: Dharma took her to his home in Rajasthan, before selling her to a man in Haryana. “He told me, ‘I have sold you to a man for 30,000 rupees’,” she says, “but when we got there I realised that man wanted to sell me on as well.” She found a social worker who helped her escape. She was fortunate: few of the women who run away from the villages where she was ever make it out alive. Government medical tests found she had been raped by two different men. She was 17 at the time, and the age of consent in India is 18. Nevertheless, she is lucky. In the villages from which she escaped, there are hundreds of women still trapped in similar slave “marriages”. The village of Ghasera is just 40km from New Delhi, but it is another world. It is still walled, like a fortress from centuries ago. The roads are dirt and the houses ramshackle huts. There are more than 100 imported “brides” in this village alone, according to locals. The people are hostile and even the police don’t risk coming into these villages unarmed. Locals have attacked police who tried to rescue “brides”. Anwari Katun was sold for $366 and brought here from Jharkhand. Katun wants to tell her story, but the villagers crowd into her house and stand by menacingly as she tries to speak. Her fear is evident. Cowed by the crowd she says: “I accept what happened to me. I’m not happy but I accept it. This is a woman’s life. The only thing I want is that this doesn’t happen to my sisters … ” With that she sits in silence. Rishi Kant has spent the last four years rescuing women like Katun. His organisation, Shakti Vahini, has rescued more than 150. But he says he can do nothing for Katun at the moment. The Government shelter in Haryana state has places for only 25 women and it is full. As soon as a place opens up, he says, he will go back for Katun. To get the women out of the villages, he has to enlist the help of the police. In villages like Ghasera, the police raid only in numbers, and only in the middle of the night, when they can take villagers by surprise. But the police are co-operative, and do get the women out. Then the long process of tracking down their parents, and trying to get them home if possible, begins. Many of the trafficked women in the villages are minors. Shabila came to Ghasera from Assam, 1000km away. She says she is 25, but she doesn’t look a day over 15. There is no psychiatric counselling for the women. Some become reconciled to their lives. Afsana speaks openly of her unhappiness in front of her husband: she is not afraid of him. Although there was no formal marriage, they have stayed together and he has not sold her on. “There are several girls who do not want to stay, but what can they do? They are in a helpless situation.” Her husband, Dawood, could not get a wife locally and travelled to Afsana’s native Bihar where he paid $112 for her. He complains that there aren’t enough women in Haryana, but he does not see the link between aborting female fetuses and the shortage. In a village a short drive away, Asouti, you can find the reason behind the suffering of the slave brides. Lakhmi Devi had five abortions, all because the child she was carrying was a girl. She is still tortured by guilt. “It is better for a mother to die than to kill her daughters,” she says. “I was under immense pressure from my husband’s family to provide him with a son.” Eventually, she gave birth to a son, Praveen, and her agony was over. Meanwhile the trafficked women keep coming, from across India, to fill the places of the unborn females.