Sex, lies, and a receipt: Bride trafficking lifts it head from under the veil

In states with poor gender ratios, the ghastly practice of bride trafficking continues unabated despite community efforts.

A very recent news piece described an outrageous incident where a woman from Odisha was allegedly sold at a public auction in Hamirpur district in Uttar Pradesh. The auction took place at the baaratghar (community centre) in Jharakhar village for over a day, and the woman was ultimately bought by the highest bidder, a resident of the same village who paid Rs 25,000/- and took possession of her.

Evidently, families in the northern states of India especially Haryana which has the worst sex ratio in the country with only 879 women for every 1,000 men, have come up with a quick fix to deal with the lack of women to marry their sons. They “import” them from other states where there are more women, and where the impoverished families of those women are ready to sell their daughters for a price.

According to Dr. Anita Yadav, Director, Women Studies Centre (WSC), Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak, there are at least 6-7 brides from outside the state in almost each of the 6,000 villages of Haryana.

The politics of the Indian wedding

“Young men in Haryana are being forced to buy brides from other states. This has turned into a business, and agents and touts are flourishing,” said Mr. Sunil Jaglan, the sarpanch of Bibipur in an interview right before the 2014 General Elections which saw groups of young men march with slogans like “bahu dilao, vote pao” where their primary demand from contesting candidates was to find them a wife in exchange for votes.

Taking it to another level, BJP candidate in the upcoming Haryana Assembly elections OP Dhankar is using this ploy to garner votes from unmarried men. Addressing a Kisan Mahasammelan at Narwana, Dhankar said, “Making BJP strong also means that those youths in many villages who are roaming without brides will get one.”


The Indian “Bride Bazaar“, as a news report once termed it, is flourishing in parts of the country where poverty stricken parents, families unwilling to spend on the dowry and marriage of their daughters. Organized traffickers have mushroomed to sell young girls as brides to the highest bidders who are conned into a life of abuse and – a lot of times – prostitution.

High demand for child brides

Shafiq Ur Rehman, the founder of Empower People, an NGO working with survivors of bride trafficking, said the practice is rooted in the history of northern India. “North India, including Haryana, has been a battle ground. Polygamy, and the claiming of women along with jewellery and property as war prizes, was common,” he said.

The brides often called “paros” or “molki” (one who has a price) are sold for anything between Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 30,000 depending on their age, beauty and whether they’ve been previously sold. Young adolescents are in great demand, since virgins are considered premium and therefore fetch the best price.

It is chilling to think that girls as young as 10 have been sold into this sordid trade. But the numbers are hard to ignore. According to a National Crime Records Bureau report data, more than 22,000 girl children and women between the ages of 10 and 30 were kidnapped for marriage in 2012. And a UN Report has confirmed that India is home to one in three child brides in the world.

Human rights violations rife

The trafficking of women across the country puts these women at high risk because they are isolated and therefore more vulnerable to abuse. Since many of these brides come from south and south east India where the sex ratio is a little more equitable, the cultural differences between the girls and the north Indian men who purchase them is vastly different where they find it difficult to adapt.

But cultural adaptation is least of their problems when the treatment meted out to them by the husband is ghastly and sometimes, bordering on inhuman. Rubina, originally from Assam, who was forced into marriage at 16 when asked about her living conditions said, “We paros belong nowhere. We are treated like animals. If a man has to choose between leaving a local woman and one from outside, he kicks us out; if a man is in need of money, we are sold.”

A bride is sold 2 to 5 times on an average and her price goes down with each subsequent purchase as she grows older. It is customary in many instances where these brides have been forced into polyandry and engage in sexual activity with other men in the family of the man who bought her. She is therefore deemed as owned by all and exploited in equal measure.

States like Rajasthan are brimming with bride markets frequented by buyers from Haryana, tell stories of bargaining and publicly “feeling up” the girl to check the “quality” of the commodity that he is purchasing which come with a warranty and everything.

Unacceptable sex ratios

The most logical primary factor to blame here is female foeticide. The Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques Act, 1994 has made some significant strides in punishing sex determination and the resulting sex selective abortion which has therefore improved, if only marginally, the number of sex selective abortions.

The child sex ratio however has deteriorated sharply over the last 20 year. A recent report by UN Women and UNFPA says that the number of girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6 has dropped to 918 in 2011 from 945 in 1991. India’s sex gap, says Lakshmi Puri, a U.N. Assistant Secretary General, “demonstrates that the economic and social progress in the country has had minimum bearing on the status of women and daughters in our society.”

But there is another component at play here. An Annual Health Survey Report brought out in March this year said that although female foeticide is present, the child sex ratio has been affected more due to infanticide and neglect of the girl child in the 0-4 years phase. Therefore, a large number of girls are dying at an infant stage where parents choose to neglect the nutrition needs either due to ignorance or intentionally. The data in the report shows a substantial fall in the sex ratio in the 0-4 years age group in several districts spread across nine states. Since many of these are the most densely populated states in the country, this fall would account for lakhs of missing girls.


This component points out a glaring loophole in our legal machinery that has no provisions to safeguard the girl child from neglect within the family after she is born. No legal framework leads to zero cases against families that are deliberately killing their girl children by neglecting them at an early stage.

A place where a girl child is received unpleasantly and considered a burden, bride buying is an absurd reality. The deeply rooted cultures which allow such practices in several states have acted as catalysts to this burgeoning business that is becoming alarmingly common.

It’s hard to see a way out of this because of the many social, economic and legal complexities involved.

Lawlessness of the land

Unfortunately, there are no meaningful laws to tackle bride trafficking effectively; The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act is a special law focused on prostitution but doesn’t cover all forms of trafficking. Therefore the application of this law may not be the most prudent. Bonded Labour Act 1976 and Juvenile Justice Act aren’t equipped to handle these types of cases either.

S. 366 of the Indian Penal Code which deals with “kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel her mar­riage, etc.” is a lone remedy that can be used, but again it has no provision for rehabilitation or reintegration of the victims of bride trafficking.

Empower India and Shakti Vahini are perhaps two of the few NGOs that are working in this sector. Empower India has taken a multi pronged approach to this issue by developing a module that takes a look at prevention, rescue and rehabilitation. Sensitisation programs and engagement, community awareness, family counselling and legal awareness and assistance form an integral part of their strategy to uproot this evil that has been in practice for several decades. Participatory models such as public campaigns and a “March against Bride Trafficking” are their unique ways of bringing this issue to light.

But NGOs cannot possibly handle the gargantuan task of eradicating this problem on their own. A major problem they face is in identifying the victims since they typically come from rural areas and are sold to distant, isolated villages. And the fear of being ostracized in the community prevents victims from accepting that they have been bought or trafficked. Therefore, the legal nature of arranged marriages as they come to call themselves put the onus on the authorities to prove the women were forced into marriage in order to pursue arrests.

Apart from legal recognition and aid, social engagement and awareness is imperative. An important step to eliminating gender bias and the attached issues of gender based crimes is pulling down the religious and cultural barriers that prevent families from accepting girls as persons with rights and freedom and not as liabilities. Once we accept and pursue the belief that women are people, who are not born to be future-wives for men and that they are not entitled to ‘wives’, things can slowly start to change.

And we must remember that as an equal member of society and within the family, a girl is not anybody’s to be bought or sold for any reason. You simply cannot put a price on a woman.

Featured image courtesy: Ashwin Kumar | Flickr


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