The Untold Story of India’s Sold Brides

By Sajith Anjickal, National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

Bride trafficking is an unlawful activity wherein brides are bought and sold against their will only to be subjected to sexual and domestic slavery. It is one of those pervasive yet indiscernible crimes that affect women. India is home to a rather massive, organized and lucrative bride trafficking network. Women trafficked on the pretext of marriage are oppressed, deprived of basic rights, sold again as maids and eventually abandoned. The proliferation of the bride trafficking network can be attributed to the gender imbalance prevalent in majority of the States in India. And to make things worse, India lacks an effective statutory framework to curb the social evil of bride trafficking.

India’s bride trafficking is driven by lopsided sex ratios. Bride trafficking is, undisputedly, a repercussion of the bloated male population relative to female population. As per the most recent data released by India’s Sample Registration System, the country witnessed an alarming fall in the ‘sex ratio at birth’ (SRB) from 900 to 898 in 2014-2016. In addition to this, recent statistics released by the NITI Aayog highlight the decline in sex ratio in 17 of the 21 large States, with Gujarat recording the highest dip of 53 points. These figures are but a manifestation of the failure of the much hyped campaigns of the government like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save your Girl, Educate your Girl). The asymmetrical sex ratio in majority of the States has intensely fuelled the demand for brides from structured trafficking networks. The brides are bought from the poorer States, and the people involved in such illegal and inhumane transactions claim that there are insufficient women in their caste/community. The bride trafficking industry, especially in States like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, thrives on the fact that men are unable to find women to marry. Thus, the Indian tendency to abort or kill the female child has no doubt generated a definite and lucrative market for trafficked brides. Moreover, as per the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau Report, 33,796 females were kidnapped or abducted for the purpose of marriage and almost half of them were under 18 years of age. All these figures portray the stark reality of the problem of bride trafficking. And unfortunately, with the already severe and ever growing problem of skewed sex ratio, no clear solutions seem to be in sight.

It is rather unfortunate that there are no laws in India dedicated to primarily deal with the issue of bride trafficking. India tackles trafficking via a number of laws. Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code covers trafficking for exploitation. On a similar note, Sections 372, 373 and 366B address the purchase and sale of girls, as well as import of girls from foreign countries. Even the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956 fails to attack the evil of bride trafficking. However, it is Section 366 that comes close to dealing with the problem of bride trafficking by prescribing punishment for “kidnapping, abducting or inducing woman to compel her marriage”. Besides this, there seemed to be a slight ray of hope when the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2016 was proposed. However, though the Bill was advertised as the first ever comprehensive legislation on trafficking, it lacks clarity and has its own legal complications. The Bill is too broad, in the sense that it fails to deal directly with issues like bride trafficking. As a result, certain sections of the Bill can disproportionately impact those females who elope with their partners. Unfortunately, the Bill is wrongly modeled on the approach of solving a social issue by relying solely on criminalization. Further, the aspect of ‘rehabilitation’ of the victims is paternalistic in nature as it does not take into consideration the choice of the ‘rescued’. Thus, the absence of a purposeful rehabilitation mechanism will only make things worse when it comes to minor victims of bride trafficking. It can be said that this Bill, though moving in the right direction, has a long way to go to flawlessly tackle the menace of bride trafficking.

Though the legislature has not succeeded in mitigating bride trafficking, the judiciary has definitely brought in some respite. Recently, the Supreme Court of India, in Independent Thought v. Union of India, had criminalized sex with minor brides. In this case, the Court read down Exception (2) to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code. As per the aforesaid exception, rape of a married girl child (below 18 years of age) by her husband was treated as an exception to the crime of rape itself. What makes this case noteworthy is that it can save thousands of girls from being trafficked and sold under the garb of marriage. The context to this case was aptly provided by Adrian Phillips, spokesperson of ‘Justice and Care’, an organization which fights trafficking, when he said that, “For the longest time, traffickers have been using marriage with minors as an alibi to rape girls in the first instance, to break them, before selling them to pimps and brothel owners”. There is no doubt that this judgment is a huge step in the direction of deterring traffickers as it provides legal protection to the largest age group among trafficked brides.

High time that the government, after due consultation with all the stakeholders, comes out with a foolproof legislation and policies that can effectively wrestle with the issue of bride trafficking. Such legislation/policies must be coordinated with the already existing laws to ensure maximum efficacy. However, legislation is not a complete solution in itself. The problem needs to be eliminated from its roots and to do that, people must be educated about the long-term implications of female foeticide. The State Governments must strive to improve the sex ratio in their respective states. All in all, persistent measures to prevent bride trafficking need to be undertaken so as to ensure a safe environment for women.

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