Rubina appears much older than the 40 years she admits to. She does not look you in the eye; she is hardly audible, and often trembles. Her hut, on the outskirts of Guhana village in Haryana’s Mewat district, is surrounded by garbage heaps and excreta. There is no water or electricity and the hut is filled with acrid smoke from the cooking fire. “This is how our stories end,” she says, shooing away a stray dog.
Widowed three months ago, she was thrown out by her in-laws as she is a paro or molki (‘molki’ literally means ‘one who has a price’) — the terms used for women who have been purchased in other states and brought to the region.
These are pejorative labels in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh where the skewed sex ratio and entrenched feudalism has resulted in a flourishing trade in women trafficked from the poverty-ridden villages of Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha.
The women, who are usually promised marriage, find themselves in places like Mewat where the go-betweens sell them — sometimes repeatedly — to men who cannot find local women. Cut off from their native states, they are often confined and forced to work as bonded labour or pushed into forced marriages or prostitution.
The molki phenomenon is now so common that these areas even have common sayings that refer to the condition of these women — like the one that says it’s impossible to find a paro’s grave as she is passed on from man to man and so doesn’t stay in one place for long.
“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,” said Rubina, originally from Assam, who was forced into marriage at 16.
A field study by the NGO Drishti Stree Adhyayan Prabodhan Kendra revealed that out of 10,000 households they surveyed in Haryana, over 9,000 married women were bought from other states.
Less than two hours drive from New Delhi, Mewat is one of the 21 districts of Haryana, which has the most imbalanced sex ratio in the country — 879 women for every 1,000 men against the national average of 927 to 1,000. “More than 30% of men in Haryana between the ages of 15 and 44 are unmarried because of the skewed sex ratio.
When they don’t get women locally, they obtain them from other states,” said Dr Prem Chowdhry, an independent researcher based in New Delhi former fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, who has worked extensively on shifting marriage patterns in north India.
'We don't get as much love and respect as local women': bride trafficking survivor, Mewat.
Although HT visited Mewat, which has a large Muslim population, paros and their purchasers cut across community lines. “In Jind, I have come across Hindu and Christian women from Odisha and Jharkhand,” said Susmita Guru, a senior researcher with the Indian Social Institute.
Village heads in Mewat revealed that early marriages and economic factors add to the problem. Indeed, the trade in women is now accepted as normal in this area. “Families here don’t give their daughters to men who are older than 20, poor, handicapped or widowed. If you belong to any of these categories, you will have to buy a bride,” said Zakir Hussain, the sarpanch of Luhinga Khurd village. “In every village, you will find at least 15 paros. It is common here,” he added.
According to the 2011 census, about 72% of the population in rural Haryana, including more than 60% of the women, is literate. Nearby Gurgaon is an IT hub and hosts many automobile manufacturing units including Maruti Suzuki. But that’s only part of the picture. 70% of the state’s population continues to be engaged in the agricultural sector.
Shafiq Ur Rehman, founder, Empower People, an NGO working with survivors of bride trafficking, said the practice is rooted in the history of the region. “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 National Crime Records Bureau report data shows that more than 22,000 girl children and women between the ages of 10 and 30 were kidnapped for marriage in 2012.
“The demand for ‘marriageable age’ girls is so intense that organised trafficking rackets have started operating in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh,” said a 2013 report commissioned by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Ghausia Khan, bride trafficking survivor and a member of a district legal aid authority reveals that, on average, a girl is sold between two to five times. “You will never find a paro staying with the man who brings her to Haryana or to a neighbouring state,” she said. This is borne out by Rubina, who was sold twice before she settled with her husband whose family eventually turned her out after his death.
In Kaithwada, a village in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur, roughly 100 kilometres from Mewat, we met Mohammad Gulshan (45), who regularly procures women from the north-eastern states. “Assam and Kolkata are the two places which send girls in bulk,” he said taking a break from working in his mustard field to reveal a few tricks of his part-time trade.
The UN report which shows that most of the women forced into marriage are from Assam and West Bengal confirms Gulshan’s revelations.
“Poor people in these states find it difficult to get their daughters married as they cannot afford the dowry. If they send their girls to Haryana, they don’t have to give any dowry. Plus, they get money in return. On the other hand, the men in Haryana get women, who are not locally available. It works for both the parties,” he said.
Gulshan’s current wife, a native of Bihar, was bought for a mere Rs 3900. The trade relies on trust. “I have contacts in Bihar who can trust me and can easily send the girls with me,” he said.
According to Shafique, the price of a paro varies between Rs 5,000 and Rs 30,000 depending on her age and features. He does not buy the argument that parents sell their daughters out of poverty. “The only person who gets money in the process is the middle man,” he said.
Given her transformation into a literal commodity, an ‘object’ that can be bought and sold, and used as currency, the woman at the centre of the transaction has no say in her fate. Whether she serves as a bonded labourer, a sex slave, a house maid, or will be accorded the status of a wife all depends on the inclinations and circumstances of her buyer (see accompanying stories).
While some, like Rubina, are abandoned after the death of their husbands, others live with the humiliation of being a paro. Married or not, they are never treated at par with local women. “Sending local women out to work in the field is not considered good here. Paros serve as cheap labour,” said Susmita Guru.
The UN report has also noted that a sizeable number of those trafficked for domestic work amounting to bonded labour are from Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Most of the trafficked women were unwilling to talk as they fear being ostracized by the villagers. This poses a challenge to NGOs who cannot intervene unless a woman registers a protest or if a case of trafficking has been clearly established. As a result, much of their work is limited to case documentation.
The authorities are similarly handicapped. “We are yet to get a single complaint where a girl alleges that she was bought. Even for suo-moto action, we have to follow some leads. But there exist none,” said Mewat SP Anil Dhawan.
Sold when pregnant
Razia is not sure about the number of times she has been sold. It began when she was brought, at 14, from Bihar’s Bhagalpur district to Rajasthan. She does not remember the features of the man who brought her. Yet, her memory of him is indelible.
“He was the first to rape me. It continued for three days. Then he sent me to some other place where I lived may be for a month,” she said. There, again, she was violated by at least five men.
The broker then dumped her with Shahnawaz, a man in Akheda, a village in Mewat, Haryana. Shahnawaz, who was already married and a father of six, married Razia.
Razia believes he did it for a male child. “His only son from his first wife had not keeping well for two years. Doctors in the village declared that he would not survive,” Razia says.
When she was three months pregnant with her second child, Shahnawaz left Razia with a family in a neighbouring village saying she had to help them at a family wedding. When she did not hear from him for a month, she got suspicious. That was when she learnt that she had been sold for Rs 25,000.
Razia returned to Shahnawaz when the panchayat interfered and admonished him. No police complaint was lodged.
But Razia’s hardships did not end. Shahnawaz and his first wife both died about two years ago and Razia was pushed out of the family by her step sons.
She now makes Rs 3,000 a month by cooking meals for students at a madrasa. Her elder son, 19-year-old Hamid, runs a tyre puncture shop nearby. Opposite the madrasa are a number of shops that Shahnawaz owned.
“This is the empire of my husband which is now with his sons. And I am made to live like a beggar,” she says.
Two sisters worth Rs 12,000
Lakshmi was 12 years old when she woke up one day in Haryana. She recalls that the floods had wreaked havoc in Assam, when a man approached her father and asked him to send both his daughters to Delhi for a better future. He showed them a picture of the prospective groom. “He gave my father Rs 12,000 for me and my sister,” says the 26-year-old who now lives in Gadhola village.
Lakshmi was brought to Haryana’s Mewat district and handed over to a man in his late fifties. He was the uncle of the boy whose picture had been shown to Lakshmi’s father. No marriage was not performed and she had to live with the man. When she objected, she was repeatedly beaten by the broker.
After a year and numerous pleas, the middlemen took her back to Assam where she narrated her woes to her father. “But the only way my father could get me back was by returning the Rs 6,000 he had been paid for me. He didn’t have it,” she said. The broker also threatened to malign her reputation and make it difficult for her to live in Assam.
Once again, the broker showed Lakshmi’s father a photograph of a man and assured him that, this time, she would certainly be married. Once again, money changed hands. “I saw the broker taking Rs 10,000 from Amit,” she says, referring to her husband.
Amit is a truck driver who lives outside Mewat for most of the year. Lakshmi does odd jobs at nearby farms. She says that when he is home, Amit abuses her sexually and physically. He has taken away her mobile phone. “When I resist, he says he can kick me out anytime and sell me for Rs 5,000. This is the worth of a paro. Even a buffalo costs more.”
Meet Ghausia Khan, a torch bearer for Mewat's paros
With her dark complexion and rounded features, Ghausia Khan (58) stands out from the crowd at the Mewat district court. Dressed in a blue salwar kameez, a dupatta covering her head, and her feet are in worn-out slippers, her wrinkled face and her slow walk makes Ghausia look older than her age. A member of the district legal aid authority, she consoles a woman sitting across her desk.
“We will teach them a lesson. Do not give up. If you keep quiet, they will get encouraged,” Khan tells the newly-wed. Pointing to the henna on the woman’s hands, Khan says, “She got married a week ago. Her in-laws have thrown her out because her father could only give five tractors in dowry instead of seven.”
Khan helps women in distress to find lawyers and provides them with legal information and at times, monetary assistance. But more than any of these, it is her moral support, she says, which enables victims to overcome the trauma. She has intervened in the cases of local women as well as paros trapped in involuntary marriages.
At one level, Khan is fighting a battle to get rid of her past. At 14, she herself was brought from Hyderabad, around 1,000 miles from Haryana. Eventually, she married Rusdaar Khan who grazed cattle. Ghausia gave birth to their first child at 17.
As money was hard to come by, she took up odd jobs at a carpet workshop and then a biscuit-making factory before joining Empower People, an organisation that works with bride trafficking survivors.
“Initially, I used to get nervous as my work involves interfering in family affairs and regular interaction with policemen and lawyers. But that is all past. Now, I am no less than a police woman,” Ghausia says. “I can relate to their woes as I share their past.”
She wants to develop a network of survivors whom she can train to take up new cases. Once that is achieved, she says, she would move on to play a bigger, political role. “I wish to contest the upcoming assembly election as an independent candidate. As a legislator, I will be able to work for these women in a more meaningful way,” she says, adding that none of the existing political parties will give her a ticket as she is a Paro, and is therefore considered an outsider.
At home, in her semi-plastered single floor structure in Mewat’s Ferozepur Namak village, it is hard to find Ghausia, the activist. Her 13 grandchildren surround her as she enters the house and her husband expresses his irritation that she has returned late in the evening.
Her youngest son, Wasim (20), a motor mechanic, does not know the details of Ghausia’s job. “She goes to some office, is all I am aware of,” he says. Shamim, her eldest, a teacher at a primary school in a nearby village, is well versed with Ghausia’s job profile and says that when she started, he used to accompany her.
Shamim realises that, in a rural milieu, village elders, do not like women venturing out for such jobs. “They ask me all the time why she doesn’t stay home. We know what she does but it is not easy to convince people outside about it,” he says.
About his mother’s desire to enter politics, he says, “To contest elections is our right. She can be in the fray. But to contest in order to win is a different game altogether. It needs muscle power and money. We lack both.”
A Paro is never at par with a native wife
It is not difficult to locate Khalil Ahmed’s house in Mewat’s Malab village. “The man who has a wife and a paro?” we enquire. A group of children guides us to a courtyard, where Khalil, a landlord in his late 40s, is discussing politics over a hookah with fellow villagers. A worker with the Indian National Lok Dal, a regional political party, he takes us to his spacious mansion where we discuss the region’s culture of paros in the presence of his first wife and his children from both women, numbering 10.
Khalil’s first wife is a native of Mewat. The second one, whom he refers to as ‘Kalkatta waali’ is from West Bengal. Khalil says he married for the second time, five years after his first marriage, because he fell out with his first wife. “She went to her parents’ place and did not return for three years,” he says. During that phase, Khalil visited an acquaintance in Kolkata who arranged a bride for him. He does not disclose the money involved. Since then, he has been living with both women. “Koi tension nahin hai (there is no tension), he says.
He insists his wives are equal but while his first wife lives in a spacious house that measures about 300 yards, the second one has to make do with a home one-third that size and has control of only one-fourth of her husband’s five acres. Unlike the first wife, the paro spends most of her day out working in the fields. “This is more than enough for a woman from outside,” says the patriarch.
Khalil is now finding it difficult to get wives for two of his sons from his second marriage because they don’t resemble the native Meos of Mewat. “Some people here say that it will change their breed. They are right in a way.” he says, claiming that there are at least 200 paros in his village. “While some, like my wife, are married, others have been brought here only for fun,” he says, insisting that he had a “genuine reason” for his actions.
“How do we know what was your objective at that point of time?” his son Guhar comments, dismissing his claim. It’s a moment straight out of a family melodrama. Khalil asks him to leave and then proceeds to share stories of other such women in his neighbourhood. He points us to a dhabha on the Delhi-Alwar highway. The owner, he says, has a wife from Mewat and two paros from Gujarat.