India's trafficked brides endure cycle of abuse

MEWAT, India (AFP) — The wrinkles on Sumari's face betray her troubled past, making her look far older than the nearly 40 years she believes she is.
Widowed young, she was brought from her native village to northern India and sold to a man who abused her sexually and physically, and imprisoned her and her daughter in his house.
"It went on for three or four months, until he sold us off to another man," says Mumtaz, Sumari's daughter, who is now about 20.
Sumari is one of the luckier women, having eventually found a good husband after being sold repeatedly in a thriving human trade in northern India that is blamed on local customs and a shortage of women.
More than 10,000 women like her are believed to have been bought or lured with the promise of a job from poorer Indian states in recent years to be married to men who cannot find wives.
"There aren't enough girls here. Locals won't give their girls to widowers, ageing and handicapped men," said Fatima, Sumari's neighbour in Mewat, a district of Haryana state where there are 820 girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of six.
This compares to a national average of 927 to 1,000, and the worldwide average of 1,050 girls for every 1,000 boys.
Experts say abortion of female foetuses because of the traditional Hindu preference for sons in this male-dominated society has led to a severe shortage of women in Haryana, and upset the sex balance nationwide.
Mewat, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from New Delhi, was carved out as a separate administrative zone from Gurgaon district -- which boasts high-rise offices and upmarket malls -- and stands in stark contrast to India's impressive growth story.
Bride trafficking has been well-documented here and while the impact on the region's sex ratio is a major concern, the problem is complicated by other factors such as acute poverty and early marriage.
"Many women die during childbirth here, leaving a large number of widowers who can't find local girls. They have to buy them," said Manmohan Sharma of the non-profit Voluntary Health Association of Punjab, which campaigns against female foeticide.
Trafficking in India takes place largely for commercial sexual exploitation, as well as for labour, organ transplant and forced marriage, says the UN office on Drugs and Crime, though it adds there are no reliable statistics on victims.
There are historical reasons as well for the trade.
"Women used to be a part of the loot of the local warrior tribe and have always been treated as objects," said researcher Shafiqur Rahman, who interviewed scores of Mewat women for a research paper for advocacy group Jagori.
-- Sale of women as wives, maids, prostitute goes back a long way --
A woman brought from outside the region is called a "paro" which roughly translates as outsider, but has become a pejorative, locals say.
"Every paro here has been sold an average of two to five times," said Gaushiya, the chief of a local woman's group who herself was brought for marriage from southern Hyderabad city several years ago.
"People here still call me a paro. Other women in the household would chide me, calling me dark and fat when I first came here," she said.
Most men pay 5,000-20,000 rupees (120-510 dollars) for a bride, said Ravi Kant, executive director of anti-trafficking group Shakti Vahini, which says it has rescued some 250 paro women in the past five years.
"Many women are first brought to Mewat where the practice goes back a long way, and are sold later all over the state," Ravi Kant said.
"I married at 17 as there is immense pressure here to marry by 20. Those older than 20 have to pay for a bride," said 24-year-old activist Mohammed Qasim, who works for the non-profit group Empower People.
Hameedan, in her 30s, remembers waking up in Mewat about 16 years ago after an acquaintance knocked her out by lacing her food in her native Assam state in northeast India.
"I didn't know anyone here. I didn't know the language. It took me 10 years to establish contact with my family," she says.
She was in her early teens then, while her husband was in his mid-50s.
"He is old but still beats me up. A woman can't hit back at her children's father, can she?" she says.
Many women are treated as domestic and sexual slaves, working for both the master and often for his wife, if he is still married.
Most are reluctant to talk about the humiliation they endure.
A few non-profit organisations such as Empower People have done research and documentation on the plight of trafficked women. A few others say they do rescue women from time to time.
For most women there is little help at hand and the authorities say they cannot take action if the women do not report any crime or harassment.
"There are many truck drivers here. They travel all over the country and bring brides," said C.R Rana, Mewat deputy commissioner, the region's top administrative official.
"If they are legally wedded, what can we do." 


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