Once Trafficked as ‘Brides’, Now Excluded: In Bihar’s Araria, a Second Chance Eludes Survivors

Araria (Bihar): Radha is 26 years old and the mother of a nine-year-old girl. Her father was a farm labourer in Bihar’s Araria district.

A year after he passed away – Radha was in Class 8 then – five strangers arrived at Radha’s house in a car.

“I was married to one of them. In the middle of the night, I was taken to Delhi. Six months into the wedding, my husband started physically abusing me. One day, he sold me,” said Radha.

Mukesh Sharma, Radha’s husband, and a resident of Uttar Pradesh sold her to a brothel in Agra, about 1,200 kms from Araria. Radha was forced into sex work. At the age of 17, she gave birth to her daughter. 

After a year, with support from a local woman, who worked as a tea-seller, Radha ran away from the brothel and reached Araria.

“We begged, asked people for directions and managed to reach my mother’s house. Soon after my arrival, I found out that I was two months pregnant. After much contemplation, I decided to go ahead with the pregnancy. Today, I manage to make ends meet by working at a shop and try to educate my daughter,” says Radha.

Radha at her shop. Photo: Seetu Tewari.

But there is little relief. Neither her family, nor larger society treat her well, she says.

“My brothers and sisters-in-law assault me physically and often ask me to leave the house,” says Radha. She fears for her personal safety outside of her home too and wears vermilion – a mark of marriage for Hindu women – to protect herself.

Locals call what happened with Radha ‘dalal wali shaadi,’ or ‘broker’s marriage’.

Bride trafficking is common in India’s eastern state of Bihar, especially in the rural parts of Seemanchal – including Kishanganj, Araria, Katihar, and Purnia districts. Here, recurring disastrous events combined with weak socio-economic situations have thrown residents in an unending cycle of poverty. 

NITI Aayog’s 2021-2022 annual report says that 51.91% of Bihar’s population is in the category of Multi Poverty Index (MPI). This is the highest in our country. The Bihar Economic Survey 2021-22 has it that the condition of Araria and Kishanganj districts of Seemanchal is the worst.

Caught in poverty, parents sell their daughters to grooms for as little as Rs 5,000. The amount paid can be as high as Rs 40,000 at times.

For the past two decades, Bhumika Vihar, an organisation based in Bihar, has been working on addressing the issue of bride trafficking in this area. Shilpi Singh, head of the organisation, said the deal is often brokered by an acquaintance. “They keep an eye on the economically weak families in their area and when they see a family especially struggling, they brainwash the girl’s guardians and persuade them to get her married to a man from another state. The wedding is performed secretly,” she added.

Also read: How a Trafficked Woman’s Petition Is Being Used to Push for Detention of ‘Illegal Migrants’

Employees of Bhumika Vihar found that guardians often do not know where the girl will be taken after the wedding.

In the year 2016-17, Bhumika Vihar found 142 such cases in a survey of 10,000 families in Araria and Katihar. Most trafficked brides have ended up in Uttar Pradesh, followed by Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, and Punjab, the organisation says.

Very few are like Radha and manage to run away and reach home. Thirty-five-year-old Shyama is one such woman who found her way back to Araria with her three children. 

Shyama was sold for Rs 20,000 by her own brothers Surendra and Virendra, who had gone to work as labourers in Punjab.

“My brothers did not attend the wedding. Some people got me married in front of my mother and took me to Punjab. My husband kept me in a house and asked me to sleep with others. Refusal led to more physical violence by my husband. I survived for three years and then ran away with my children. The police arrested me on the train for not having a ticket. But jail was better than being with my husband,” says Shyama. Today, she is a farm labourer. She also sells vegetables in the evening in the Chowk Bazar of her village. 

Shyama works in the field. Photo: Seetu Tewari.

As per the National Crime Records Bureau 2021 report, the number of cases of human trafficking registered in the state was 111, as compared to 75 in 2020. At the national level, 2,189 cases were registered in 2021 as compared to 1,714 in 2020. 

Suchita Chaturvedi, a member of the Child Protection Commission of Uttar Pradesh, where bride trafficking is taking place on a large scale from Bihar, says, “Whenever trafficking victims are rescued, most of them are from Bihar. They are brought over in the name of education, marriage, etc. Several fake marriage cases have also been caught at Lucknow’s Charbagh railway station.”

Although the cases of bride trafficking are on the rise, such cases do not get recorded in the official statistics of human trafficking.

Stressing the reason behind it, Pammi Singh, the head of Rampur Kodarkatti Panchayat of Araria, says, “Who would frequent the courts and police stations? These people are so poor, their primary concern is food. There is also the fear of defamation if police come to their houses for questioning.”

This fear of defamation, along with acute poverty, is what stopped 25-year-old Jamuna, another survivor of bride trafficking, from going to the police station against what happened to her.

25-year-old Jamuna. Photo: Seetu Tewari.

While her mother Rukhia Devi Rekha refused to talk about her daughter being sold in the name of marriage, Jamuna is upfront about her ordeal. “I was sold for Rs 8,000 to Punjab. My husband would force me to sleep with almost every man around. I ran away, but going to the police station meant my parents would also be implicated, so I had to decide, ‘Should I go to the police station, or should I survive’?” she asks.

Ashok Kumar Singh, the Superintendent of Police, Araria, agrees that cases of bride trafficking rarely come to police’s notice. However, Singh says that police acts whenever it gets complaints on cases related to marriage with the intention to kidnap.

Most women who have managed to return live their lives in silence, with little acknowledgment of their trauma. But most have resolved to build a better life for their own children. “My daughter should get married somewhere nearby. I can marry her to a beggar here but will never get her married in another state,” says Shyama.

Seetu Tewari is the winner of the Sanjoy Ghose Media Awards 2022. You can write to her at connect@charkha.org.

This article was first published on The Wire.