Mumbai: Early in the summer of 2022, days after her 15-year-old daughter went missing from the Monday bazaar, a weekly market at the Fatehpur town square in Gaya district in the heart of Bihar, policemen at the Fatehpur police station continued to tell A* that the disappearance did not merit registering a first information report (FIR).
“She must have run away with a boy, they said, that it was a love affair for sure,” said B*, the girl’s 30-year-old aunt.
Nearly three months after her teenager failed to come home, A, a widow and day-wages labourer in her 40s, finally managed to get an FIR filed. It was June by then.
The girl had managed to call home, and had explained over a furtive call that she had accompanied two young men of a neighbouring village, acquaintances of the family, to Patna, from where she was taken by two unknown women to Rajasthan, nearly 1,100 km from her home.
She was in Baran, she said, a district in south-western Rajasthan and a place B had never heard of. She named the men who lured her, Vinod Yadav and Prabhat Sah.
She had been married to a poultry shop owner in his late twenties.
Then, in a series of whispered calls over the course of weeks, the girl managed to convey to her family that she was being sold once again, to a different man, who would also ‘marry’ her.
“That is when we contacted a non-governmental organisation and asked for help,” B told Article 14. “We couldn’t possibly sit back and do nothing.”
Patna-based child rights activist Suresh Kumar spoke to senior police officials and finally, an FIR was filed in Fatehpur. Suresh Kumar also contacted Sangeeta Beniwal, chairperson of the Rajasthan State Commission For Protection Of Child Rights, and urged her to help.
Hours later, the girl was rescued from the village of Bilasgarh.
With her was another minor girl, trafficked from Bihar’s Bhagalpur district and about to be married to a local man in Baran.
A case of trafficking was registered at the Bhanwargarh police station and the girls were taken to the district hospital’s ‘Sakhi Kendra’ or centre for adolescent girls in distress.
“At the lower levels, police do not take the offence of human trafficking of brides and children seriously,” Suresh Kumar told Article 14. “They do not even want to register an FIR.”
He said once an FIR is registered following pressure from senior police officers, the lower rung does little to rescue the victims and make arrests and initiate prosecution of the traffickers.
“It takes a lot to make the police at the police station level assist in these cases," said Kumar.
Though trafficking of women for forced marriage or sexual slavery is an illegal activity attracting prosecution under anti-trafficking laws, sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, and, in the case of minor girls, also under the Protection Of Children From Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 and the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection Of Children) Act, 2015, registration of offences is rare.
Activists and experts Article 14 spoke to were unanimous that the 182 recorded cases of women trafficked for forced marriage in 2021 as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) were a fraction of the incidence of the crime, on account of victims’ and their families’ reluctance to register cases.
“The basic complication is the involvement of the family from the word go,” said Sunitha Krishnan, who has worked against trafficking of women for three decades. Her organisation, Prajwala, was established in 1996 in Hyderabad, initially as an an initiative to prevent inter-generational prostitution.
In contrast to other forms of trafficking where the element of fraud or cheating is easily established, in cases of girls trafficked for marriage, there is “a huge community silence”, Krishnan said, with impoverished families believing that they have settled their daughter in better circumstances than prevalent in her maternal home.
Missing Brides: Marriage In Gender-Imbalanced States
In videos that the Gaya teenager’s ‘husband’ Bablu Singh sent B to prove that he had indeed married the girl, the groom is seen performing common pre-wedding rituals: women apply a paste of haldi (turmeric) on his body in one clip, groups of relatives dance to raunchy music in another.
In a third, grainy video, he is seen walking around a ceremonial fire, with his bride who is dressed in a canary yellow saree, one end of it covering her head, pulled low over her eyes.
“He told us there was nothing unusual for them about marrying a girl from a different community and different state,” B told Article 14.
She convinced him to speak to her on the phone soon after the girl was taken away from his house, to be sold to another ‘groom’, at a higher price. On B’s coaxing and promises that the girl would be sent back to him, he sent her the photos and videos, as well as his Aadhaar card and other details.
He told her he paid Rs 250,000 to a man from his village, Hari Singh Aheri, who used to work in a factory in Haryana. The two youngsters from her village who lured the girl used to work in the same factory or a nearby factory, B found out. “That’s how they got to know Hari Singh,” she said.
Baran district is part of Rajasthan’s Hadauti region, also including Kota, Bundi and Jhalawar districts in the south-eastern part of the state.
Rural and peri-urban areas in Hadauti have, for decades, witnessed the practice of families purchasing brides (see here, here and here). Other parts of north India, including Haryana (here and here) have witnessed the practice on a large scale too, considered widely to be on account of a ‘male marriage squeeze’, the effect of an imbalance in the numbers of males and females on marriage.
In Haryana, the women are derisively referred to as ‘Paro’ or ‘mol ki’ (for a price).
Rajasthan’s sex ratio as per the 2011 Census of India was 928 women per 1,000 men.
This improved considerably over a decade. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 5th round in 2019-21, the latest, pegged sex ratio of the total population in Rajasthan (females per 1,000 males) at 968 and sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years (females per 1,000 males) at 940.
The improved sex ratio was still lower than the national average, though several states fared worse. According to the NFHS-5, India has 1,020 women per 1,000 men, the first time in history that the sex ratio has tipped in favour of females besides being a sizeable improvement from NFHS-4 in 2015-16 when the sex ratio (females per 1,000 males) was estimated to be 991.
A 2016 paper by social scientist Ravinder Kaur of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi; economist and author Surjit Bhalla, research scholar Prasanthi Ramakrishnan of the University of Washington and Manoj Kumar of Oxus Investments, New Delhi for the United Nations Population Fund estimated the extent of the current marriage squeeze at the all-India and regional levels, while taking into account variables such as marital status, age gap between men and women, education hypergamy (the tendency of educated women to ‘marry up’) and cross-regional marriages.
The paper found the ‘deficit’ states (with the poorest sex ratios) of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh to be where the root of the problem of marriage squeeze lies.
Bride Trafficking Thrives On A Culture Of Silence
Marriage as a conduit for trafficking occurs mostly in situations where the destination is a region experiencing a gap in the male-female sex ratio and where the source region is home to vulnerabilities triggered by economy, livelihood, disasters, displacements, etc, said Krishnan.
“At one end there is crushing poverty where every mouth to feed is a heavy burden, and at the other end there are people desperately trying to stabilise their family, or procreate,” she said. “There is this mismatch and a whole network works around it.”
Suresh Kumar, the Patna-based activist, said traffickers and middle-men may not always make direct contact with impoverished girls’ families, may use an acquaintance or a friend to approach the girl or her family, may sometimes lure the girl or the family with the prospect of a job and a better life.
In the case of the victim from Gaya, the two men arrested by the Bihar police were family acquaintances. The two drove commercial vehicles that the family used to hire on occasion, a Mahindra Bolero for passengers and a minivan or small truck that B referred to as a ‘tempo’. She said the girl likely accepted a lift from one or both the young men on her way to or while returning from the market that Monday.
A class IX student, the girl was learning to sew. “I don’t know if she was in touch with him regularly,” B said about the accused. “But nine days after she went missing, it was his phone that she called on.” The youngster informed B of the call, pretending he did not know her whereabouts.
When the girl called on B’s phone days later, distraught, she again told her aunt she wanted to speak to the accused.
“Finally, we managed to get hold of him and put her on speaker,” B told Article 14. “She abused him saying aap chhod ke chale gaye (you left me there).” He denied the allegations then, but was arrested in July, a couple of weeks after the rescue in June.
Krishnan said the “lure of love” was the most common trafficking method.
Traffickers frequent areas around government schools or social welfare hostels where they may find first-generation learners, perhaps insecure in a new environment, she said. In some cases, after they ‘elope’ or undergo a ‘temple marriage’, the man may even keep the girl, happily, for three to four months before handing her over to a ‘sister’ or an ‘aunt’, with the promise of returning soon.
In one such case, it took Krishnan’s team five months to convince the survivor that the man she believed was her husband had trafficked other women earlier. Krishnan herself had met six of his victims.
Sold, Resold, Raped, Beaten, Stigmatised, Abandoned
In his study of 50 trafficked brides (during 2017-2021) in various districts of Haryana, Niteesh Kumar Upadhyay, PhD, associate professor of law at Galgotias University in Greater Noida, found that trafficked brides were often resold numerous times, making the trade a lucrative business.
The trafficked, or ‘mol ki’, women performed various roles—bearing a child, providing cheap agricultural and domestic labour, caring for ailing or elderly family members—and rarely complained or ran away, for fear of violence.
His study found that 70% of his subjects belonged to families living below the poverty line, 38% had been raped before or after being sold, and 10% had been sold more than three times.
Speaking to Article 14, Upadhyay said nine of his 50 subjects had been forced into sex work and 10 had been forced into polyandry at some point.
“There were cases where one woman was married to three brothers or sometimes even more,” he said. “In some cases, after suffering abuse at the hands of the men they were trafficked to, the women were sold to somebody else in near proximity.”
Having seen her and observed her behaviour, the prospective buyer would know she would not be rebellious. This meant the man could sell her at the same value he purchased her for two or three years earlier, said Upadhyay. “In some cases, maybe the new buyer would pay more.”
One woman he met was 58 years old, with married daughters. “She was a widow but was unable to get any property rights because she was the second wife of her late husband.”
Krishnan, whose organisation has rescued 26,000 survivors of trafficking since 1996, said some victims of trafficking in the name of marriage took months to acknowledge to themselves that they had been abused.
Some may bear a child and develop filial or emotional connections before they are rescued; minor girls at the first stage of trafficking may be living with a trusted male and may resist being forced to return to their parents; even those forced into sexual slavery—within the husband’s family or for commercial gain—may find the alternative of returning to an extremely deprived household unappealing, according to Krishnan.
The few who file cases and testify often do so because of reasons such as forced sexual perversions, or to return to another liaison that was not coerced. Krishnan recounted their experience of rescuing a 13-year-old girl who had spoken up on being forced to marry a 32-year-old man because she had the confidence that she would be accepted by her boyfriend.
“She obviously couldn’t be handed over to the boyfriend,” said Krishnan, “and was placed in institutional care.”
Families of trafficked girls may not wish to take them back, citing dishonour and community pressure, she added.
The other situation where police cases are registered in incidents of trafficking for marriage is when the promised payment and the sum actually paid to the family do not match.
‘It Is About Male Mentality’
Buyers’ markets in bride trafficking rings see lower advocacy work than the source states do, a problem closely associated with the male marriage squeeze, said Shafiqur Rahman Khan, founder of non-profit Empower People that works to rescue and rehabilitate trafficked brides.
“By saying bride trafficking occurs due to lower sex ratios, due to a scarcity of women in a specific age group, there is almost a justification for the purchase of young women as brides,” said Khan, whose team has focused on the Assam-to-Haryana bride trafficking route since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Khan said most interventions have focused on the source states, and impoverished parents of young girls who are lured to participate are blamed. “Nobody talks about the buyers. People focus on the girls’ poor families and dehumanise the parents.”
Bride trafficking, both for marriage and in the name of marriage, he said, persists because there is a preference for younger women. “It is a mentality thing,” said the Delhi-based Khan. Young women are also easy to lure, are very commonly re-trafficked and exploited.
According to NCRB data, 12,931 children below the age of 18 were recorded as having been kidnapped for marriage in 2021, including 12,788 girls.
Upadhyay’s research found minors too. In a separate study of only minor girls trafficked for marriage, he found three girls who were trafficked when they were below 12 years of age, nine girls trafficked when they were not yet 15 years old, and 16 girls trafficked when they were between 16 and 18 years old. One of the minors had been trafficked three times, he said.
Among these, more than 86% belonged to families below the poverty line.
“One was about 10 years old, and pregnant when I met her,” he said. He travelled to meet her once again the following year, and she had a baby girl then.
Sex With A Minor Bride: No Arrest
In the case of the trafficking survivor from Gaya, one of the men who helped lure her from her village, Prabhat Sah, was arrested in July, weeks after the FIR was filed. At the time of the rescue, a Rajasthan-based man in whose possession she was found was also arrested.
The man in Baran, Rajasthan, who married the minor and lived with her for several days was never arrested.
In September 2017, a Supreme Court (SC) bench of Justice Madan Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta ruled that the age of consent for marital sexual intercourse should be raised from 15 years to 18 years.
Supreme Court advocate Jayna Kothari, co-founder of the Centre For Law & Policy Research, who appeared for the petitioner Child Rights Trust in the 2017 case, said not only would the man who married the 15-year-old girl from Gaya be liable for prosecution under anti-trafficking law, but also sections of the POCSO Act and section 376 (punishment for rape) of the IPC.
“The 2017 judgment took note of the incongruence in law that set the minimum age for marriage at 18 years, majority as 18 years and yet, under section 376 of the IPC, provided no action against a man for sexual intercourse with a girl aged 15 to 18 years if she was his wife,” Kothari said.
She said the idea was that police would use this section and ensure that in the case of girls under 18 years of age in forced marriages, any intercourse is seen as sexual assault and rape. “It is unfortunate that even so many years after the 2017 judgement, it appears that police often do not know that the judgement has read down that exception,” she said.
The Inadequacies Of Laws Adequate, Enforcement
While there is no statutory provision particularly focused on trafficking of brides, several provisions of law exist to address trafficking.
Section 370 of the IPC deals with “buying or disposing of any person as a slave” and includes within its ambit not only selling but also buying, accepting, receiving or detaining such a trafficked person, providing a maximum punishment of seven years’ imprisonment.
Section 372 addresses sale of minors for sex work while section 373 deals with buying or obtaining a minor for sex work. Section 366 pertains to kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel her to get married and section 366B addresses the importing of girls from other countries for sex work. All four sections provide a maximum punishment of 10 years’ imprisonment.
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, amended in 1986, does not expressly discuss trafficking for marriage.
“There is no lacunae in the law,” said Krishnan, who believes section 370 of the IPC is well suited to tackle cases of girls trafficked for marriage. “The law recognises that trafficking may be for the purpose of forced marriage, servitude, servitude-like conditions and more.”
She said the problem is with the application of the law in India. There may be a case to apply the POCSO Act in some cases of trafficking of minors too, but in the absence of police complaints, she said, enforcement has remained slow. “The cycle breaks only when there is a complaint and police action follows.”
Khan, the Delhi-based activist, said women imported as brides into the deficit states from poorer states in the east are also at risk of sudden abandonment during periods of crises. He said during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, among the migrant workers walking or hitching rides to get back home, he found a handful of women from the states of Assam and Jharkhand who had been evicted from what they had taken as home.
“This was when police were beating back people they found walking on the highways,” he said, “so what legal help could the police have offered?” His team helped provide food to the few women in this situation they came across, or assistance to reach a safe place.
According to Upadhyay, any effort to legislate on the subject would likely be in vain, on account of multiple legal and socio-economic factors. He said anti-trafficking organisations such as Shakti Vahini and Empower People rescue women, with the help of local police, on the occasions when they get a report that a woman in such a marriage needs help.
“The issue is that not many women complain,” he said. “Most are uneducated, poor, were raped during transit or later and reckon that there is no going back home.”
The men and women are, in several cases, also from different religions, including Hindu men with Muslim wives or vice versa. The Special Marriage Act, 1954 would apply in these cases, he said, and there would be a question of legality surrounding their marriage even if there had been a wedding ceremony. Neither religion nor caste is a bar for men paying money for brides, he said.
In Gaya, Intense Pressure To Withdraw Complaint
On 9 September, A and B returned to Fatehpur police station to register a second FIR, this time against the second man they believe lured the teenage girl, his father and other relatives. According to the FIR, the family arrived at A’s door on 20 June, soon after the first FIR in the case had been lodged, and had threatened to kill them if they didn’t withdraw their complaint.
One of the two men who lured her, Prabhat Sah, had been arrested in July.
Subsequently, the family had abused them on several occasions, the complaint said. “Ghar me aag laga denge, dhamki diya,” A’s complaint said. (“They threatened to burn our house down.)”
On one occasion, B told Article 14, men on motorbikes followed her and A who were both riding pillion on her brother’s motorbike. “They cornered us late at night, in near total darkness, on an abandoned stretch of road and threatened us again,” B said.
A case was filed invoking sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 504 (intentional insult to provoke breach of peace), 506 (criminal intimidation), 34 (acts by several persons in furtherance of common intention) and various provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989.
Based on this complaint, the second accused was arrested in the third week of September.
B said they were living in fear despite the police complaint. Her own husband is a migrant worker, away at work in a spinning mill in Tamil Nadu, more than 2,000 km to the south. A, a widow, has two other children. They are Manjhis, a ‘Mahadalit’ or extremely backward caste.
“Trafficking thrives on vulnerabilities,” said Krishnan, “and therefore Dalit or tribal girls are at greater potential danger of being victims.”
B said the men used the “filthiest bad words“ while heckling them. “We are still to get our girl back home, and we don’t know if she will ever be safe here now.”
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(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)