Short of Brides, Indians Turn to Brokers

Mala, 24, came to Punjab from West Bengal in 2000 to marry Hardev Singh, 45. She said her cousin told her that Punjabis had no women to marry.
Mala, 24, came to Punjab from West Bengal in 2000 to marry Hardev Singh, 45. She said her cousin told her that Punjabis had no women to marry. (By Muneeza Naqvi For The Washington Post.)

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By Muneeza Naqvi
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 5, 2005

BIR KHURD, India -- Harmesh Singh, a 40-year-old vegetable farmer, had explored the conventional methods of finding a wife. He had consulted female relatives and older women in his village and buttonholed family members in other towns in a quest for leads. After years of searching, however, he still had not found a bride. So last year, he bought one.

Dipping into his meager savings, Singh paid a marriage broker to introduce him to Bibi Kaur, a runaway from Calcutta who says she is 17 but looks considerably younger. Singh would not say how much he paid, but social workers in the area say the fee typically ranges from $100 to $300, depending on the age and appearance of the bride-to-be.

"A man needs someone to take care of his home, cook his meals when he returns from the fields, and no one could find me a girl here," Singh said as he squatted outside his mud-brick home, sipping tea from a steel tumbler.

Singh's use of a broker to find a wife is common in this rural part of Punjab province, where there is a shortage of young women. To indulge a cultural preference for sons, many couples in India have had sex-selective abortions over the past two decades, taking advantage of new technology such as ultrasound. The result is lopsided populations in some parts of the country.

Though sex-selective abortions are illegal in India, the practice is especially prevalent in relatively wealthy states, such as Punjab, where couples can afford the necessary medical tests. In Punjab, in northwestern India, there are 874 females for every 1,000 males, one of the widest gaps in the country, according to 2001 census data. In the United States, according to the 2000 census, there were 1,038 females for every 1,000 males.

The dearth of potential young brides in Punjab has fueled a demand for women from poor eastern states such as West Bengal and from neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal, where the sex ratio is not as skewed but unemployment and poverty are widespread. Some of the women go willingly. But others are enticed by false promises of jobs, social workers say, or are sold by their families to brokers, a practice that is illegal.

"Over the next decade the problem will only get compounded if the sex ratio doesn't change dramatically," said Jasbir Kaur, a local activist with the All-India Progressive Women's Association, a women's rights group. "There is so much legal noise, but the people who want to abort a female fetus will always find a way to do it."

The trend is especially pronounced here in the Mansa district of Punjab, where there are just 779 females per 1,000 males. The imported brides are easy to spot in this farming area about 200 miles northwest of New Delhi. Their slender physiques and darker skin mark their Bengali or Nepali origins. Although many have tried to fit in by changing their names, they speak self-consciously in stilted Punjabi, the regional language.

In a village near Bir Khurd, Mala, 24, who uses just one name, has been married to Hardev Singh, 45, for five years. Mala said an older cousin brought her here from her home in West Bengal.

"In my village, we had no land and had to work as laborers on other people's land," she said. "We didn't even have a proper house. My cousin said that here they don't have any women to marry, and she brought me here."

Mala lives with her husband in a one-room house. The couple's lone buffalo is tethered in the corner of a small yard. "Here at least there is food to eat," she said.

Mina Rani, 21, came to Punjab seven years ago from Bangladesh with her aunt, who sold her for $115 to Lila Singh, a farmer almost 25 years her senior. "I miss home -- the food, especially the fish, and of course the festivals," Rani said as she played with her 2-year-old son.

Rani said she knew she could not go back home. Apart from the cost of the trip, she had to consider the shame her return would bring to her family. At least now, she said, "more girls from my country are here, so it's better for all of us. We have each other, at least."

Her husband interjected: "I know this is not a good thing, but there are no girls to marry here. We are also helpless. What can we do?"

In Bir Khurd, Bibi Kaur, the wife of the vegetable farmer, said she used to live in a Calcutta slum with her parents and eight siblings. Her parents cleaned houses for a living, and there was never enough to eat, she said. Last year, she met a man who promised her a job in a big city. She would not say much about her journey except that the man brought her to Bir Khurd instead.

Kaur, a small woman with big, nervous eyes, was so reluctant at first to talk to a visitor that she ran from her home and hid in the fields. Finally, she returned and quietly said she was content in her two-room mud-brick house, where utensils gleamed in a makeshift kitchen.

Her husband was not unkind, said Kaur, who clutched her year-old son to her hip. Village women have taught her how to cook Punjabi food and given her advice about taking care of her baby, she said.

Singh, her husband, said he treated his wife well.

"When there is enough money," he said, "I'll even let her go back to visit her family if she wants to."

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