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The agony of India's trafficked brides

Women may be bought and sold several times over

The agony of India's trafficked brides

A trafficked woman in Mewat district, Haryana state.

Ritu Sharma, Mewat, Haryana

March 24, 2014

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Bulbuli has to keep adjusting her headscarf to cover up the scars on the back of her neck as she does her daily chores.

Despite attempts to compose herself, her pale face and forlorn eyes reveal the pain she is hiding inside. Bulbuli has stopped dreaming about her future. She says that every time she closes her eyes, she’s haunted by the nightmares of her past, the nightmare of being a trafficked bride. 

“I was sold for 15,000 rupees (USD 250). The middleman who brought me to Delhi was known by my family and lied to my parents, saying he would marry me to a nice family,” she said.

Bulbuli, who was 14 years of age when she was first trafficked, was taken over 2,000 kms from Assam in eastern India to Delhi, never to return home.

“The person who brought me to Delhi raped me and then I was handed over to another middleman who also raped me, and after that I was sold,” she said.

Bulbuli, who goes by only one name, says she has been sold a total of six times. Now, at age 32, she lives with a blind man who bought her seven years ago for about $100 and for whom she has borne four children, in Nuh village, Mewat district, in Haryana state.

While tragic, Bulbuli’s story is not uncommon. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the NGO Empower People, there are around one million such women scattered in the northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

In Mewat district alone, which consists of about 500 villages, there are some 50,000 cases of women who have been trafficked and lured into fake marriages. They are trafficked from all over India, mainly from the impoverished states of Assam, Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar in eastern India.

“Sometimes they are kidnapped, sometimes their parents are misled and lured by the middlemen who offer a better life in bigger cities. The middlemen conduct fake marriages of these girls to satisfy the parents, who being poor do not double check,” said Shafeeq Khan, chief of Empower People, which has rescued 800 trafficked women in the last eight years.

These trafficked women are kept by a family, physically and sexually abused by all the men in the family, denied proper food and made to work for long hours in fields, he said.

Khan said that one of the factors driving this trend is the demand for cheap labor to cultivate land.

“Getting women like this is cheap. They give sexual pleasure as well. You buy them for a certain amount and there is no need to pay them daily wages. You also get a certain amount of your money back by selling them again,” he said, adding that hiring a male laborer would be too expensive for many poor families.

Girls between the ages of 13 and 21 are in the most demand. The maximum price for a young girl is 20,000 rupees ($333). Their price decreases as they are exchanged by more and more people, said Khan.

These women are stigmatized as Paro (traded) or Molki (bought) by local villagers, who distinguish them from other women in the village because they are trafficked.

After they are sold four to five times, they are often dumped on a physically handicapped person, beggar or outcast, or abandoned to fend for themselves.

Illiterate and traumatized, these women have few options other than begging, or working as wage laborers in brick kilns or construction.

Mariam, 40, was first sold for 15,000 rupees ($250) and then for 10,000 rupees ($166) before she was purchased by a handicapped man for a much lower price.

“He used me to satisfy his needs. Since he was handicapped he could not work so I had to work in the brick kiln to feed both of us,” she said.

After his death, the man’s relatives threw her out and ever since she has been living on the outskirts of Nuh village in a small hut.

Another problem that stems from this issue is that children born to these women are considered illegitimate, are often illiterate and are not accepted by mainstream society.

Gaushiya Khan, who is a member of the district legal aid authority and works for the empowerment of trafficked women, said that it is difficult for such women to enter into the mainstream as there is a lot of stigma attached to being a Paro or a Molki. “It is insulting, disrespectful and degrading,” said Gaushiya, who herself was trafficked from Hyderabad in southern India.

Activists working for the cause of these women allege that there has been little or no cooperation from the police in curbing this practice.

“Even if we take a trafficked woman to a police station, police refuse to lodge a complaint,” Gaushiya said.

In Mewat, the district police refused to even acknowledge that trafficking is taking place in the area.

“It is not in our knowledge. We have not received even a single complaint from any such woman. There have been complaints of domestic violence but no trafficking,” Vijay Anand, sub inspector at the district police headquarters in Nuh, told

“I cry when someone calls me a Paro. It feels as if somebody has hit me hard. By the time I understood that I had been trafficked, I had already been sold two times,” said Raabiya, who lives in Ferozepur Namak village.

Raabiya has seven children and has been sold a total of four times. “Currently I am staying with a man who bought me for 8,000 rupees ($133) four years back. I have adjusted to life here but there is always an uncertainty about the future. I never know when I will be sold again.”

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