“He was paid by my in-laws to get them a suitable bride. It is a common practice here.” Ruma Kheechad is in her twenties and is sharing her story with me. “To come from far away and settle here [Rajasthan] is not possible for everyone. My jethani [elder sister-in-law]…”
" Pachas hazaar laga ke usko laaye the! Fir bhi, saat saal ki bachchi hai, usko bhi chhod ke bhaag gayi woh [We gave 50,000 rupees and got her. And she still ran away, leaving her daughter, now a seven-year-old, behind,].” That’s 67-year-old Yashodha Kheechad (name changed) snatching the narrative from her daughter-in-law to assert her own.
“That woman! She stayed for three years.” Yashoda is still furious as she talks about her elder daughter-in-law from Punjab who ran away. “She always had a language problem. Never learned our language. One raksha bandhan, she said that she wanted to go and meet her brother and family for the first time after marriage. We let her go. And she never came back. It’s six years now,” she added.
Ruma, Yashoda’s second daughter-in-law, came to Jhunjhunun (also spelt Jhunjhunu) through a different broker.
She does not know the age at which she was married. “I never went to school so I can’t tell you which year I was born in,” she said even as she is looking for her Aadhaar card in her grey almirah.
I watch her five-year-old daughter playing on the cot in the room.
“Perhaps my Aadhaar is in my husband’s wallet. I guess I am about 22 now,” Ruma said.
“I was born and brought up in Golaghat [Assam] after my parents died in an accident,” she continued. “I was just five, and since then my family has been just bhaiya [brother] , bhabhi [sister-in-law] , nana [maternal grandfather] and nani , [maternal grandmother],” she added.
In 2016, on a Sunday afternoon, Ruma saw her brother bring two strangely dressed Rajasthani men to visit her grandparents’ house in Assam's Golaghat district. One of them was a broker for sourcing young girls as brides.
“It was not common to have people from other states visit my hometown,” says Ruma. They promised her family a good husband, no dowry. They even offered money and a wedding without expenses.
The ‘suitable girl’ Ruma was sent off with one of the visiting men. Within a week the two men had transported her to Kishanpura village in Jhunjhunun district – 2,500 kilometres away from her home in Assam.
The money that was promised in lieu of her agreeing to the marriage so far away, never reached Ruma’s family. Her in-laws, the Kheechads, claim the payment they had made to the broker included the share to be paid to the girls’ family as well.“In most of the houses, you’ll find daughters-in-law from different states,” says Ruma. Locals and activists working in the area say that the young girls are brought to Rajasthan mostly from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.
Finding a bride in Rajasthan is difficult – the state is among the worst performing in terms CSR – child sex ratio (0 to 6 age group). In the 33 districts, Jhunjhunun and Sikar are the worst. In rural Jhunjhunun the CSR stood at 832 girls per 1,000 boys, well below the national figure of 923 girls per 1,000 boys according to the 2011 census data.
Human rights activist, Vikash Kumar Rahar says the paucity of girls is because sex selection favours baby boys in the district. “The shortage of females who could be brides to their sons makes parents approach easily available brokers. The brokers in turn offer girls from very poor backgrounds from other states to such families,” he adds.
According to the more recent numbers for 2019-2020, documented in National Family Health Survey ( NFHS-5 ) the sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years in Rajasthan is 940 females per 1,000 males in urban areas. In rural areas it drops further to 879 females per 1,000 males. Jhunjhunun has more than 70 per cent of its population living in rural areas.
Rahar is a coordinator at the local non-governmental organisation Shikshit Rojgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti (SRKPS). He says, “People offer money [for brides] starting from Rs. 20,000 up to 2.5 lakhs, including the brokers’ cut.”
But why?“How can we get anyone [a bride] without that?” questions Yashoda. “Nobody here gives you their daughter unless your son has a government job.”
Yashoda’s two sons help their father farm the land and look after their six head of cattle. The family has 18 bighas where they grow millet, wheat, cotton, and mustard. (A bigha equals 0.625 acres in this part of Rajasthan).
“My sons didn’t get girls here, so getting one from outside [trafficked] was the only option for us. For how long could we keep our sons single and unmarried?” asks Yashoda.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines trafficking in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Person as “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” In India it is a criminal offence, punishable under Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). And carries penalties ranging from 7 to 10 years imprisonment.
“Every district of Rajasthan has an Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU),” says Mridul Kachawa, Superintendent of Police, Jhunjhunun, speaking to PARI about their efforts at curbing the practice. “A few months ago, Assam police approached us regarding the trafficking of a girl. We investigated, rescued the girl, and sent her back. But in some cases, the trafficked women refuse to go back. They say that they are here by choice. Then it becomes complicated.”
Ruma would certainly like to go meet her family more often but wants to continue staying in her in-laws’ house. “I am happy here like a normal girl,” she says. “There are no problems at all. Obviously, I don’t go back home so frequently since it is too far but yes, I would want to go and meet my brother and family soon.” Ruma has not faced any physical or verbal abuse in her in-laws’ house till date.
While Ruma may feel like a ‘normal girl’, Sita (not her real name) also in her twenties and trafficked from West Bengal in 2019 has a different story and one that she is terrified of sharing: “I don't want you to use the name of my district or that of anyone else's from my family.”
“In 2019, a Rajasthani broker visited my family with a marriage proposal from Jhunjhunun. He said that the family had lots of money and lied about my husband-to-be's job. Then he offered 1.5 lakh rupees to my father and insisted on taking me away immediately.” He said the wedding would happen in Rajasthan and he would send photos across.
Sita left the same day thinking she was helping her father, struggling with debts and four young children.
“Two days later I was locked into a room and a man walked in. I thought he was my husband,” she continues. “He started ripping off my clothes. I asked him about marriage, and he slapped me. I was raped. I must have spent the next two days in the same room with minimal food, and then was taken to my in-laws' house. That is when I realised that my husband was a different man and eight years older to me.”
“There are brokers who have a bride for every age and economy,” says SRKPS founder Rajan Chaudhary in Jhunjhunun. “I once asked a broker if he could get me a girl, and mind you I am over 60 years old. To my surprise he said he would charge me more, but it could be done quite easily. The plan he suggested was to take a young man along and portray him as the prospective groom.” When the family hands over their daughter, the broker would bring her to Rajasthan and ensure the marriage.
The real issue of trafficking brides into Jhunjhunun, according to Rajan, is the sex ratio of the district. “Illegal sex determination tests that target female foetuses, happens within and outside of the district, easily and on a large scale,” he points out.
Varsha Dangi is a resident of Alsisar village in Jhunjhunun, around 30 kilometres away from Ruma’s house. She was married off to a man 15 years older than her in 2016. And was brought to her husband's village from her home in Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh.
“He was older, but he loved me,” says Varsha. “It’s my mother-in-law who has been a troublemaker since I arrived here. And now that my husband is dead, things are bad,” says the 32-year-old.
“ Yahan ka ek bichauliya tha jo MP mein aata tha. Mere gharwalon ke paas paise nahin the dahej dene ke liye, toh unhone mujhe bhej diya yahan par, bichauliye ke sath. [There used to be a middleman from Rajasthan who would regularly visit Madhya Pradesh. My family had no money to give as dowry for my marriage, so they sent me here along with him],” she says.She is speaking to us as she hides in a neighbour’s house: “Make sure you don’t talk to me about this when my saas (mother-in-law) or devrani [younger sister-in-law] arrive here. If any one of them hears us it will be hell for me.”
'There used to be a middleman from Rajasthan who would regularly visit Madhya Pradesh. My family had no money to give as dowry for my marriage, so they sent me here along with him'
Her four-year-old boy has been pestering her for a biscuit as she talks. The neighbour offers him a few. “If it wasn’t for these people,” she said pointing to the neighbour, “my child and I would have starved to death. My sister-in-law and I have separate kitchens. Since my husband died every meal has been a challenge.” Varsha is in tears as she speaks about the limited rations she depends on to survive since her husband’s death in 2022.
“Every day I am asked to get out of the house. My mother-in-law says if I want to live, I have to wear someone’s chooda ,” says Varsha, referring to the Rajasthani custom where a widow is forced to marry another man from the groom’s family, never mind his age. “She is worried I will ask for a share in my husband’s property,” Varsha says explaining the reason behind it.
The district is largely rural with 66 per cent of the population being engaged in agriculture. Her husband was a farmer, and no one cultivates his part of the land since his death. The family owns 20 bighas of land, shared between two brothers.
Varsha says her mother-in-law taunts her every now and then saying, “H um tumko khareed ke laye hain, dhai laakh mein, jo kaam bola jaaye woh toh karna hi padega. [We have paid 2.5 lakhs rupees and got you here. You better do what you are told].”
“I live with the tag of ‘ k hareedi hui ’ [purchased], and I will die with that.”
That was in December 2022. Six months later, speaking to PARI over the phone, her voice has a different ring to it. " Aaj subah hum apne ghar aa gaye hain [We are back in my own family’s house since this morning],” she says. In her in-law’s house they kept telling her to either share her life with her younger brother-in-law or leave. “They even beat me up. So, I had to leave,” she adds.
She decided she would not take it anymore. Her brother-in-law is already married and lives with his wife. “It is common for widows in our village to get married to any of the men in the house. Age, marital status nothing matters,” says Varsha.
Varsha left the house with her son under the pretext of a vaccination appointment. Once out, she caught a train to Madhya Pradesh instead. “The women from my neighbourhood collected some funds for our tickets. But I had no money on the way,” she says.
“I had tried calling the police once by dialling 100 [police] but they had told me that the panchayat would help me. When my case went up to the panchayat , they didn't do anything to help me.”
Speaking with a new faith and a sense of agency she says, "I really want the world to know how women like me are treated.”