Only in India: cheaper to buy bride than raise daughter
Thirteen -year-old Moena Majhi from 24 Paraganas in West Bengal was conned into marrying Ashok, a widower from Haryana.
“They lied to my parents that they will give me a good life and food to eat and all that,” Moena says.
She says her in-laws were unsympathetic and her husband repeatedly raped her. Two months into the forced marriage, Moena made two unsuccessful attempts to run-away.
“First time when I ran, I was caught and beaten up with a stick. Second time, again Ashok's family caught me. They slapped and thrashed me. I worked in the kitchen, cleaned clothes, cleaned the house, and milked the cow. If I said no, I was beaten up. My leg still hurts,” Moena recalls the atrocities committed against her.
Her horrors came to an end when a Delhi-based NGO Prayas rescued Moena. She is undergoing counselling to get over the trauma of sexual assault.
“Every night he would force me to undress. If I tried to stop him he would beat me up,” Moena says. “He would beat me up everyday, remove my clothes and do bad things to me,” she adds.
Moena’s mother-in-law, however, insists nothing was wrong with her son's marriage to a 13-year-old.
“Mera ladka bhi aa jaye moina bhi aa jaye aur phir usska ghar bas jaye (I want Moena and my son to come back), Ashok’s mother Savitri says.
Apart from being marriages of convenience, these alliances come with another cause of concern.
“They tend to look down upon these women and don't give them their real status. There are instances when they are even resold to defray the cost. So several change hands very rapidly. So they are exploited not only labour-wise but also sexually,” social scientist Prem Chowdhury explains.
The Pre-natal Diagnostic Treatment Act (PNDT) has been in force for more than a decade now but till date only two people have been convicted for selective-sex abortion crimes.
The authorities say the problem lies at the grassroots.
“The importance of the subject wasn't understood by various implementing agencies. They brushed it under the carpet. Some of them actually believed they were doing the man a favour,” Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury says.
And these outsourced brides who are pressurised to abort daughters can also be punished under the PNDT Act. The absence of any anti-trafficking laws in India ensure the police just looks the other way.
“Trafficking as such is not on a very large scale. One or two cases, incidents when they come to us we deal with them as per law. As of now I would say in Fatehabad district human trafficking is not prevalent,” claims SSP Fatehabad Saurabh Singh.
Such is the skewed sex ratio that Dr Godbole, the Director of Bal Gram in Haryana's Sonepat district is flooded with desperate requests by marriage hopefuls.
“ Humare yahnan 100-200 log aate hai shaadi ke liye. Aur wo kehte hai ki agar aap ke yahan se ladkiya hamein nahi milegi toh hamein Bihar aur UP se mol lenii padegi (We get about 100-200 people who want to get married. They say that if we can’t find them a bride, they will have to go and bring in one from Bihar or UP),” Dr Godbole says.
Dr Godbole's institution has many more abandoned girls to care for than boys.
“Pitaji ke guzarne ke baad meri mummy ke paas zyada paise nahi the. Woh humara kharcha nahi kar sakti thi. Phir unhone humme yahan pe chhodha. Waise ghar me mummy rakhna chahe toh le jaa sakti hai mummy (My mother left me here because she could not afford to take care of me after my father passed away. If she wants to come and take me back home, she can,” one of the girls at Bal Gram says.
Girls still remain the second sex. Lack of any stringent law enforcement and Government-supported programs like Ladli, Apna Beti Apna Dhan, integrated child welfare and the National Cradle Scheme are yet to transform prevailing social biases.
The authorities claim they are doing their best to overcome the issue.
“We are launching huge awareness programme. You will also see a national campaign being launched now, and then our help lines are being universalised where people can call and complain. We have a very good response where public-private partnership has come forward,” Renuka Chowdhury says.
Despite the PNDT act, sex determination and abortion clinics of Haryana continue to thrive.
The latest Global Gender Gap Report places India at a dismal 114 out 128 countries, lower than Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Across India, women are bought, sold, trafficked, raped and married off without consent. It is only when women are truly empowered at every level that this terrible tide may turn.