Brides of Bargain

The Sunday Deccan Herald

Bride trafficking continues to thrive in Haryana as women are bought like commodity costing less than cattle from faraway states like West Bengal. For these women life still remains a tryst with destiny…

As the dawn breaks out, Kavita rises from her barren cot in a village near Hisar in Haryana. For a brooding moment she regards her surroundings. There are cows and buffaloes for company in the shed adjoining her little hut with a thatched roof where hay stacks are piled up. She looks for her husband who has sneaked away after paying her a usual nocturnal visit to join his family members who live in a concrete structure more appropriate to be called a house not too far away from her modest surroundings.Suddenly becoming conscious of her unkempt self, she hastily draws the veil over her face and heads to greet her mother-in-law. She is learning the cultural nuances of the new place. The day’s work is cut out – milk buffaloes, clean-up the house, prepare meals, head for the fields, tend to household chores…

Her husband and family members keep a strict watch on her movements and dissuade her from interacting with anyone outside the family. All of 18, Kavita has adapted to her new life in a land and people so alien to her native place in West Bengal thousands of miles away. As someone who was bought by her husband, Sher Singh, Kavita knows her place and status in the family which is not much to speak of. She is grateful though for one thing – at least she is getting two square meals a day which itself was a utopia in her famished parental house in a nondescript village in West Bengal. She also thanks her stars on days when her husband does not beat her up. And cherishes the rare moments when the womenfolk in her house talk to her sweetly. Kavita is a prototype of thousands of brides who have been trafficked, bought and transplanted into traditional households in Haryana villages and towns from as far as West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and even from Bangladesh.Ask Kavita about her married life and she sighs. “I am learning to live in the new environment. I had to learn the local language and customs.” She has been assured a place in the main portion of the house from her current lodging in a hut if she delivers a baby boy.A commodityAt a metaphorical level, they represent the inverse of George Orwell’s world in Animal Farm where animals having fallen to human vices increasingly seem to behave like men.

Bought like a commodity costing less than the cattle and treated like chattel, the majority among thousands of procured brides in Haryana have a quick transition into the degenerated existence of a ‘Paro’ – the ‘bought one’ in local jargon.Though there are no official figures available, there are an estimated 50,000 trafficked brides in Haryana. Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based NGO which conducted a survey on bride trafficking in Haryana estimated nearly 10,000 trafficked wives – mostly from Assam and West Bengal – in Mewat region of Gurgaon district alone. The Mewat region is among the most backward regions of the state. It is normal to find 35-plus men having 13-year-old brides in this region.The trend of procuring brides from outside Haryana is rooted in the changing socio-economic dynamics in the traditional Haryana society.In a state which is notorious for low female to male ratio (861 girls to 1000 boys), the paucity of girls of marriageable age is beginning to be felt in many villages and townships.

Coupled with this disturbing trend is the fact of increasing unemployment, drug addiction and delinquency among the youth. “The poor, landless and labourers have become principal procurers of brides from other states. The parents of girls in local communities are not enamoured to strike matches with those under precarious economic condition. So they go scouting for brides from outside the state,” says Subhash Sharma, a social activist. Earlier such marriages were frowned upon in villages and towns of Haryana but lately, there is a semblance of societal approval to these and they are fast becoming a discernible trend.Shockingly, the girls from the poor-source states are available to be trafficked for anything between Rs 4,000 to Rs 30,000 depending upon factors like their looks, age, virginity and in some cases the number of times the prospective bride has changed hands.Trafficking agentsThere is a network of agents operating in virtually every township of Haryana who facilitate such marriages with their linkages to similar agents operation in Delhi and in source states. Usually, the boy and his relatives go to the source state after establishing contact with the agents. Garlands are exchanged between the boy and the girl by way of a marriage ceremony, the price is paid either to the agent or her family and the girl is ready to resume her long, uncertain journey as a woman in an alien land. “Gross poverty, large families and lack of financial resources to marry the girl are some of the reasons that motivate parents of these girls to give away their daughters to the bidders coming to their villages,” says Raju from Saatroad village near Hansi, who has turned into a sort of agent for facilitating such marriages after his elder brother married a girl from Orissa.

The marriage of Meenu, his sister-in-law, was facilitated by her elder sister who was married five years ago to a man living in nearby Hisar. Hailing from Karkundi village in Orissa, the sisters come from a family of three daughters and two sons.“We had no choice. My father and brothers work as labourers. They could not have raised money for our dowry for a decent marriage. So, we accepted our fate to be married to men in Haryana,” she says shyly. However, she added she was settled happily in her new home.Raju and Meenu insist no money exchanged hands for her marriage. A young man of 21, Raju, himself is looking for a bride. When asked if he was looking for a local girl, Raju who works as a labourer laughs, “If anybody is ready to give their daughter away to me in marriage I will marry this evening. I know my status in society so I will have to look for a bride outside Haryana,” he says even as three other village youths accompanying him nod in agreement.There are 15 other girls from Orissa who are married to local men in the same village. Kiran, a mother of 25-day-old infant girl, says, “Initially it was difficult to adjust to local customs like pulling veil. Language was also a problem. But now I have adjusted.” Her mother-in-law says, “We never considered her as an outsider. She is part of the family. We had to marry our son to some girl, how does it matter if the girl hails from Orissa,” she asks. Other happily married girls form Orissa in the vicinity are Sunita and Renu. “My parents have visited me twice ever since I was married two years ago. I have no problems,” says Sunita.While Meenu, Sunita and Kiran make a perfect picture of a happy cross-cultural marriage, these cases are a rarity.

Shakuntla Jakhar, secretary of the Haryana chapter of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) which has been closely monitoring the trend of procured brides in Haryana, says, “The bought brides face acute social isolation and cultural deprivation. Their status is devalued because they have been bought at a price and become source of laughter and disgrace. In many cases, the family members of her husband conspire to deny them or their children rights in the family property.”Another problem arises with respect to their legal status as wives since their marriages are never registered. “It lends them open to sexual exploitation by husband’s brothers, family members and friends,” says Jakhar. She has witnessed many cases where the bought brides are subjected to ill treatment by their drunkard husbands or his family members.She recalled an incident where a bought bride from Assam living in Hisar pleaded with her to get her divorced from her husband who used to beat her up daily. Gradually, over the years, she however got used to her new life and has settled with two kids.Run-away bridesWhile the business of bride trafficking goes on unabated, there are reports of unscrupulous agents seeping into the network who sell girls to prospective grooms and then engineer their escape within days of their marriage.

Twenty-eight-year-old Neki Ram of Hungara village near Fatehabad procured his wife from Jharkhand for Rs 33,000 in February this year. Twenty days later, she fled from his house at night taking away some cash and jewellery. Buan Singh, 35, paid Rs 40,000 to the agent to procure his Bihari wife. A month later, she left for Gurgaon on the plea of meeting her sister there but never returned. When Buan Singh approached his agent, he threatened him and demanded Rs 5000 more from him. Singh returned empty handed. “Some unscrupulous agents use the same girl to marry several men to make money,” says Raju.The role of the police and the administration in the bride trafficking business is characterised by aloofness and unconcern. “There is no role for us since the trafficking is for marriage. We cannot interfere in the life of a couple who is married unless there is a complaint,” says Vimla Ghirai, incharge of the Crime Against Women cell in Hisar. She claims she has never received any complaint of harassment at the cell from any trafficked bride.She recalled an incident at Jind though. “There was a complaint where the girl from Bihar married to a boy in Haryana claimed she had been forced into marriage by her aunt and brother. She came to us and the police intervened to ensure she went away safely. Her husband complained that he had paid Rs 70,000 to procure her, but nobody can force somebody to stay with him,” she said.

Shakuntla Sangwan of AIDWA says her organisation has been demanding from the administration to register all such marriages to accord them legal sanctity for the benefit of procured girls but there has been no response from the administration so far.As the sun sets down the horizon, a tired Kavita heads back to her shanty hut. Her thoughts meander away to her dilapidated home in West Bengal. ‘Is the life of procured wife any better than the struggles of a disturbed childhood?’ She muses. Exhausted by the day’s work, she hits the cot. She has no time to mull over her future.

Who killed the girls?

In February 2006, Tripala Kumari, an 18-year-old tribal girl from Ranchi was killed by her husband Ajmer Singh, a farmer in a village in the Jind district of Haryana. Her crime? She refused to sleep with his brothers.The tribal girl was brought to Haryana by an agent who promised to get her a job. She was “married” to Ajmer Singh who desperately wanted a male heir. However, soon after her marriage she found she was expected to sleep with all his brothers. When she refused, he killed her.The murder of Tripala Kumari gave a gruesome face to a form of sexual exploitation which has become increasingly popular in the women-starved states of Punjab and Haryana. The media has even given this kind of exploitation a name: The Draupadi Syndrome.Today, Kurukshetra, the great battle ground where the epic Mahabharata war was fought is part of Haryana. In the 2001 census report, it figured as one of the “top 10 districts with the lowest sex ratios” in the country.

In 2005, when I went to Punjab and Haryana to research Disappearing Daughters, my book on female foeticide, I was shocked to hear that the discarded tradition of forced fraternal polyandry, had come into vogue again because of the alarming decline in the population of women. A new dimension had been added to the problem. Because of the paucity of women within the community, tribal women and women from other states were bought and forced into such relationships. They were also forced to abort their female foetuses. It is happening in a big way in Gujarat, another prosperous state with an alarming sex skew. In Gujarat, I met an agent who specialised in getting Adivasi brides for Patel men. This agent scouted around for girls in many of the poorer districts of south Gujarat where the sex ratio in tribal areas was good. The Adivasis did not discriminate against women. They had different problems. Poverty and alcoholism had driven their communities to the brink. Families were more than willing to sell their girls, hoping perhaps that they would enter better lives in their new homes.According to one report, an estimated 150 agents and subagents were “bride trading” in Gujarat, using tribal girls. The going rate was around Rs 60,000 for a tribal bride and Rs 80,000 for a scheduled caste non-tribal girl.Families in these states justified female foeticide to me by saying that the world was an unsafe place for women. Daughters could get raped, ill-treated by in laws, assaulted by strangers. They had a ready list of ways in which their precious daughters could be violated.But to me, it seemed so ironic that these very men and women who were now accused of treating tribal girls like sexual slaves and son-bearing machines were the ones who said they did not want daughters because the world was an unsafe place for women!

As I researched my book, many middle class families came up with one more extraordinary justification for killing of their daughters before they were born. The status of women would actually improve, they said. As women became scarce, their value would increase and society would learn to respect them more. Nothing could be further from the truth. Forced polyandry, purchasing women as sex slaves and household chattels, female infanticide…could the status of women be worse? Gita Aravamudan(The writer is the author of ‘Disappearing Daughters, the tragedy of female foeticide’)

Marriage of convenience

Young women belonging to poor families of Kerala have never had qualms in looking beyond the state’s boundaries when it came to choosing husbands. This was not because of the unavailability of grooms in their hometowns or villages but because of the straitened circumstances in which they lived. However, the character of such cross-border marriages has changed over years. After Arabs (Arabi kalyanam) and grooms from Karnataka (Mysore Kalyanam) men are now coming in hordes from Haryana. Most of these men, who are not as educated as their prospective brides, travel down south to villages surrounding a sleepy town called Payyannur in Kannur district to find their match. “It just happened that one person from Kanayi village married a Haryanvi girl some eight years ago. Later, he arranged a match for his wife’s relative and this set off a series of alliances,” says Sreejith Paithal, a journalist of Kannur. “More than 100 women have found Haryanvi grooms in the past eight years. I found that many of the women were more or less happy in their new environs,” says researcher C K Viswanathan. “My father had an eye problem which kept him out of work for a long time and my mother was also jobless,” says Sreeja, the eldest of three sisters, who married Bhirbal Singh of Soukhi village. “My family could not afford to give dowry. So I opted for this marriage.”

The Haryanvi grooms do not demand dowry or matching horoscope. What is more, they even foot the marriage bill. “Kerala women are well-educated, have clean habits, take good care of the children and ensure a stable family,” Bhirbal Singh told Sunday Herald over phone from Soukhi in Haryana. However, it is not all hunky dory. The women, who grew up in a matrilineal society, are suddenly thrown into a male-dominated culture where they don’t enjoy as much freedom. There have been complaints that some of the women are being forced to undertake hard physical labour. “We have to monitor their situation,” says Viswanathan.

R Gopakumar in Thiruvananthapuram

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