Bride Buying: India’s Darkest Secret

Jan 24, 2014 at 12:46 PM ET

NUH, HARYANA, INDIA—There are more goats and cows than cars in this town, located some 50 miles from Delhi. And for Aditya Desai, who came here to find a husband, it’s nothing like what she expected.

Roughly two decades ago, when she was just 12 years old, Desai’s parents wanted her to marry someone well-to-do. Her family lived in an impoverished village some 1,200 miles away, in the eastern state of Assam. So the prospect of a better life loomed large for Desai, who asked to use a pseudonym for this story. Her parents let her leave with a stranger who promised her a fairy-tale future near the Indian capital.

What he provided, however, was a nightmare. For less than $20 he sold her to her first husband in the dangerous Mewat district, just south of Delhi, in the state of Haryana. After a month, her first husband sold her to a man who was three times her age. Young, helpless, and no longer a virgin, she obliged. For more than 20 years now, they’ve remained married. “I was brought here under the pretense I’d have a better life,” she says. “This is the tradition here.”

Desai’s tale is not unique. In fact, what she experienced—the practice of bride buying—is one of India’s dirtiest secrets. Every year, human rights groups say thousands of female virgins—some as young as 9 years old—are duped, bought or kidnapped from impoverished areas, then sold to villages where they’re in demand.

There are no laws criminalizing the trade, and many politicians deny it exists. In a country where marital rape is still lawful, if police are asked to intervene, they often help the men accused of purchasing their wives. Yet the problem has grown worse in recent years, according to analysts. The reason: The population gap between men and women has widened, as a small but significant number of families kill their baby girls to avoid having to pay a dowry they know they’ll never be able to afford.

India’s National Crime Records Bureau says that half of the nearly 45,000 kidnapping cases reported in 2012 were for the purpose of marriage. But that doesn’t include unreported cases, or girls who are sold or persuaded to leave home. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 100,000 women are trafficked as part of the bride buying trade every year.

Ever since the gruesome sexual assault of a young woman on a public bus in Delhi roughly a year ago, the city has been painted as dangerous and rape-plagued. But what’s been lost in the street protests and the legislative battles over women’s rights is that life for women outside the capital is often far grimmer. Just last week a Danish tourist in Delhi reported being gang-raped, which sparked another protest and received widespread media coverage. But places like Haryana, where bride buying is common, rarely make the news.

The practice, known here as the paro trade, has a long and sordid history. Paro is slang for a woman who is living outside her community. But the term derives from a par, a Hindi or Punjabi term that means taken away without permission. The word carries a stigma for women who are lured by pimps and dumped into towns where there are more men than women. “Stop calling us paros, damn it,” says one woman I met in Nuh. “We’re from India.”

Desai, too, hates the term, perhaps because it reminds her of the past. She says she would never have left home if she had known the truth about where she would wind up. Today she has four children with the same husband. He’s a rickshaw puller, and their home—a small shack of brick and cement—is located in the middle of a field where cauliflower and rice grow.

Dressed in a purple garment that covered everything but her face, Desai spoke in a monotone voice when we met in a barren, concrete room in Nuh. She says her husband is a good man, but admits that her life has been traumatic. As we spoke, her words sounded recited, removed—as if in order to tell her story, she had to step outside of it.

It’s not uncommon for purchased brides like Desai to stay with their husbands. Most have children they don’t want to leave. Others have nowhere to go and remain stuck in towns where they’re often discriminated against and seen as outsiders.

According to Empower, a Delhi-based nonprofit that rescues bought brides, the women they encounter in Haryana have often been sold and married at least two times, sometimes as many as four. A majority say they were regularly gang-raped and assaulted by their in-laws or other villagers. Some say they were even forced into prostitution.

Rescuing bought brides isn’t easy. “If we get to know someone has been trafficked, we don’t approach it directly, because if we do, there might be some action taken against the girl,” says Empower founder Shafiq Khan. “So we approach it through neighbors and distant relatives. And once we make sure this is actually happening in this house, then we go directly.”

Over the past seven years, Empower has rescued hundreds of bought brides. The group estimates that there are 860,000 in Haryana alone. Its members have been tracking 86 villages in the state and seen a significant increase in the bride trade. Empower discovered 1,275 bought brides last year, compared with 512 in in 2007, perhaps because more people are aware of the nonprofit’s work and report them.

A major reason for the increase, survivors say, is that Haryana continues to have the lowest female-to-male ratio in the country, with about 8.8 women for every 10 men. Female infanticide has declined here, according to residents, but the practice persists.

Krishna Tirath, the country’s minister of women and child development, has denied that bride buying is real. In a 2011 parliamentary response to questions about wife trafficking to Haryana, she said there are “no forced marriages in the state.” She did not respond to requests for comment.

But women such as Desai are not hard to find. As we spoke in the room, sitting on traditional rope-woven bed frames, three other women with similar stories joined us. Children ran in and out of the room, climbing on their mothers’ laps, as the women recalled, in grisly detail, how they were sold, duped and mistreated. All seemed just as detached as Desai.

The women do not see themselves as victims; they say their lives are better now and their husbands have allowed them to make more household decisions, such as how many children they will have. And though they have decided to live with the families they were purchased to make, they don’t wish their fate on their children. “Our misfortune,” says Desai, “should not be repeated.”