Married into Traffic

Deepali Gaur Singh, RH Reality Check,
Asia on October 15, 2007 – 8:17am

Endless films from the stables of the Indian film industry in the late seventies and eighties dealt with the issue of a false promise of marriage, the onset of an illegitimate pregnancy and emotions galore on being a virtuous as opposed to an ‘unwed’ mother. In extreme circumstances the paramour would be simply bumped off to avoid embarrassment and social ostracism. In other situations, the ‘good man’ (read ‘hero’ of the film) would propose marriage to the now ‘soiled’ lady in question. That is really what is at the center of many Asian social set-ups – marriage. Marriage redeems you, marriage apparently protects you, marriage gives you a legal status. But for the millions of child brides in the continent, marriage is the vehicle that transports you into yet another zone of exploitation beyond redemption – due precisely to the protection marriage enjoys as a societal sanction.

The practice of child marriage, though banned way back in the 1920s in colonial India, continues to be practiced quite openly under the purview of religion and traditional beliefs. In some states the auspicious occasions of festivals are an excuse to solemnize mass marriages of mostly under-age boys and girls very much under the watchful eyes of the law. And that is what makes the conditions of these young girls even more poignant. With such a high premium on marriage parents more often than not are willing to marry their young daughters to the first eligible man. Yes, man! because many of the grooms are much older widowers or men who would have abandoned their earlier wives for various reasons ranging from inadequate dowry to the inability to bear a male child.

The practice of child brides has been responsible for several other malpractices ranging from early widowhood – meaning abandonment by families – and so for many an almost natural transgression to the commercial sex trade or the devdasi system etc. Today, one in every three girls (33%) in India is married before they reach the age of fifteen – often a child herself and completely ill-equipped to bear a child. Besides it condemns her to a life of illiteracy, economic dependency and psychological and physical incapacity.

But what makes their situation even more risky is that very often marriage is the ruse used to dupe their families into literally selling their daughters into the commercial sex trade. In India it is one of the common routes into the sex trade for many women. Women, especially from rural areas and small towns, who entered into matrimonial alliances with out-of-towners found themselves being sold off to the next customer in the chain the minute they move out of the relatively more secure surroundings of their villages. People living within the community were the first links in the chain to take these fresh recruits to the sex trade. As part of the socio-economic set-up of the village, they know which family is poor or has too many daughters (dowry-related problems lead more and more poor girls into getting duped by false promises to marry); which family has lost breadwinner or is in debt; who has been deserted by a husband or lover (especially since families refuse to take them back for fear of social approbation and spoiling the marriage prospects of younger sisters); or which woman is pregnant or a widow. In poor societies trapped within the walls of their own traditional facades it actually is quite easy to ensnare the unsuspecting victims since instead of demanding dowry as most grooms and their families do, these fake grooms also pick up tabs for the marriage. And once taken from a remote village these penniless and illiterate women just get lost somewhere in the world that greets them, hardly ever being able to make their way back home and often choosing not too.

The human trafficking network is today considered the third-largest source of profits in organized crime, next only to the narcotics trafficking and the arms trade. And the trafficking of children usually happens through well organized networks of family, relatives, friends, community leaders, brokers, the pimps and owners of brothels, the police, political connections and the criminal nexus. So in countries like Afghanistan where the arms-for-drugs nexus already flourishes, the trafficking of children has just become another component of this already existing network. Human trafficking has been closely related to the drug trafficking routes and the established narco-mafia. Often parents here have been known to sell off their daughters as brides to pay-off debts in the poverty-stricken country – debts against a destroyed poppy crop, debts against food on the table for he rest of the family. And often these young girls (often also boys) are then sold off to the next buyer in this onward route of exploitation.

The size of the trade in the country can be gauged from the fact that over time India has become the source, transit and destination point in the international circuit with children in huge numbers being trafficked within and outside the country. India shares a porous border with over seven counties where political instability and economic compulsions are reasons at play for young girls from Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and even as far Uzbekistan, to be sold to traffickers with a one way route, either into or through India. Trafficked children and women from these countries frequently on an onward journey to other countries in the Middle East often find themselves bonded to sweatshop labour, domestic servitude and forced marriages or sex slavery with the only thing that changes is the manner and method of coercion.

Nearly 64 per cent of India’s districts are affected by human trafficking. And while ten percent of it is international, the domestic market is where the lion’s share finds itself. In many cases it is the demographic imbalance caused by sex selective abortions in several states that has ensured the regular demand for child brides from poorer families and states to the “states of demand.”

And a more recent controversial judgment by the Supreme Court on the question of whether the breach of promise to marry could amount to rape really needs to be seen in each context. (The woman’s statement was that the consent she granted for sexual intercourse was conditioned upon the promise of marriage). While courts hardly ought to be the refuge for every woman upset at being dumped seeking to avenge her ex-boyfriend by filing suit yet, hopefully this judgment would not be used as a precedent for subsequent cases considering that women from smaller towns an villages invariably get sucked into the vortex of the sex industry simply by virtue of the promise of a false marriage and the high premium placed on the chastity of prospective brides. There have been instances of women who were raped, promised marriage and subsequently sold-off to the next bidder. The permutation-combinations for the relationship between young brides, marriages and sexual exploitation are innumerable. The end result remains the same.

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