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The teen brides forced to be wife to husband - and his brothers

WHEN Munni arrived in the fertile region of north India as a young bride, little did she imagine she would be forced into having sex and bearing children with her husband's two brothers who had failed to find wives.



"My husband and his parents said I had to share myself with his brothers," said the woman in her mid-40s, dressed in a yellow sari, sitting in a village community centre in Baghpat district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

"They took me whenever they wanted, day or night. When I resisted, they beat me with anything at hand," said Munni, who managed to leave her home after three months only on the pretext of visiting a doctor.

"Sometimes they threw me out and made me sleep outside or they poured kerosene over me and burned me."



trafficking

Such cases are rarely reported to police because women in these communities are seldom allowed outside the home unaccompanied, and the crimes carry stigma for the victims. So there may be many more women like Munni in the mud-hut villages of the area.

Munni, who has three sons from her husband and his brothers, has not filed a police complaint either.

Social workers say decades of aborting female babies in a deeply patriarchal culture has led to a decline in the population of women in some parts of India, like Baghpat, and in turn has resulted in rising incidents of rape, human trafficking and the emergence of "wife sharing" among brothers.

Aid workers say the practice of female foeticide has flourished among several communities across the country because of a traditional preference for sons, who are seen as old-age security.

"We are already seeing the terrible impacts of falling numbers of females in some communities," says Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director of children's charity Plan India.

"We have to take this as a warning sign and we have to do something about it or we'll have a situation where women will constantly be at risk of kidnap, rape and much, much worse."

BRIDES

Just two hours drive from New Delhi, with its gleaming office towers and swanky malls, where girls clad in jeans ride motor bikes and women occupy senior positions in multi-nationals, the mud-and-brick villages of Baghpat appear a world apart.

Here, women veil themselves in the presence of men, are confined to the compounds of their houses as child bearers and home makers, and are forbidden from venturing out unaccompanied.

Village men farm the lush plantations or sit idle on charpoys under the shade of trees in white cotton tunics, drinking tea and smoking hookah pipes lamenting the lack of brides for their sons and brothers.

According to India's 2011 census, there are only 858 women to every 1,000 men in Baghpat district, compared to the national sex ratio of 940.

Child sex ratios in Baghpat are even more skewed and on the decline with 837 girls in 2011 compared to 850 in 2001 a trend mirrored across districts in northern Indian states such as Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan and Gujarat in the west.

"In every village, there are at least five or six bachelors who can't find a wife. In some, there are up to three or four unmarried men in one family. It's a serious problem," says Shri Chand, 75, a retired constable.

"Everything is hush, hush. "No one openly admits it, but we all know what is going on. Some families buy brides from other parts of the country, while others have one daughter-in-law living with many unwedded brothers."

Women from other regions such as the states of Jharkhand and West Bengal speak of how their poor families were paid sums of as little as 15,000 rupees by middle-men.

They were brought here to wed into a different culture and way of life.

"It was hard at first, there was so much to learn as I didn't understand anything.

"I thought I was here to play," said Sabita Singh, 25, who was brought from a village in West Bengal at the age of 14 to marry her husband, 19 years her elder. "I've got used to it," she says holding her third child in her lap. "I miss my freedom."

Such exploitation of women is illegal in India, but many of these crimes are gradually becoming acceptable among close-knit communities because victims are afraid to speak out.



Dowries



Some villagers say that brothers sharing a wife has benefits, such as the avoidance of division of land amongst heirs.

Others add the shortage of women has freed poor families with from demands for dowries by grooms' families.

Social activists say nothing positive can be derived from the exploitation of women, recounting cases in the area of schoolgirls being raped or auctioned off in public. Despite making gender tests illegal, India's 2011 census indicated that efforts to curb female foeticide have so far been completely futile.

While India watched its female-to-male ratio improved since the last census, fewer girls were born and the number of girls plummeted for the fifth decade.

"The real solution is to empower girls and women," says Neelam Singh, head of Vatsalya, an Indian NGO working on women's issues.

"We need to provide them with access to education, healthcare and opportunities which will help them make decisions for themselves and stand up to those who seek to abuse or exploit them."

hnews@herald.ie


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