By Tanya Chandra, Founder, LexQuest Foundation.

As India’s latest Anti-Trafficking Bill awaits informed modifications and superior content editions, it’s unfortunate that a major component of human trafficking which concerns the sinister trade of women and young girls across several States of India has somehow escaped the eye of our Legislators. Bride Trafficking, a practice so tragic that under the garb of marriage, women are commodified throughout the cycle of their reproductive lives and resold several times, has yet again failed to be conducively acknowledged as a crisis that needs urgent attention from the Legislature.

Unravelling the Mystery of Trafficked Brides

For anyone who understands the convoluted yet discernible perception of females and marriages in India, it’s easy to see what brought fore the cultural validation for a practice as gross as trafficking females in the name of marriage.

Consider this: A poor family with little to no possible source of income in a distant village of an underdeveloped Indian state has 4 daughters. The economic burden of marriage is definitely not a liability this family can afford, yet marrying off the daughters is an aspiration it has long nurtured and is duty bound to comply with. What if a potential suitor, instead of demanding money for marriage, offers cash to this family in lieu of marrying one of the daughters?

At this point one may wonder, given India’s cultural make up, which society shall allow grooms to pay for the brides? It would be a society critically short of females owing to its low sex ratio. This would inevitably be a society more prosperous and less progressive, such that money enables it the audacity of nurturing orthodoxy by practising female foeticide and infanticide at such scale and intensity that there remain hardly any women to marry their men. As a result, regions devoid of females and hence unmarried males deprived of nuptial bliss, desperately use their abled economics to enable their frail societies. This is when one region’s economic handicap becomes the cure for another’s cultural sickness through an arrangement where women are paid for as well as married off to distant regions.

While the far eastern States, primarily comprising West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha serve as the seller States, the buyer States mainly consist of Haryana, Punjab and Western Uttar Pradesh.

At this point it is important to note that trade of women for marriage is just one aspect of this depraved practice as first time buyers are often not the last ones. As a bride who has been ‘bought into marriage’ from what is considered a socially inferior as well as alien region, is never truly accepted in the groom’s family; once she has been used for bearing children, her buyers sell her off to another prospective buyer and this spirals into a deplorable life cycle of sexual, physical and psychological violence for the woman in question.

There have been several reported and unreported instances of horrific conditions that trafficked brides are put through, even as their buyers quit trading them to prospective buyers.

Bemoaning the Quandary

According to the National Crime Records Bureau Report of 2012, over 22,000 girls and women between the ages of 10 and 30 are kidnapped and auctioned for marriage every year in India. 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.

Unfortunately, there are no significant laws and policies to wrestle bride trafficking and its  accompanying human rights violations in India. Though the Constitution of India strictly prohibits all forms of trafficking, comprehensive laws that specifically prohibit and penalize the practice of bride trafficking are yet to be implemented.

India is a party to both the human rights conventions which explicitly prohibit forced marriage, namely the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1979 (“CEDAW”) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (“CRC”) but the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956 solely focuses on prostitution and fails to address the burning issue of bride trafficking. Bonded Labour Act, 1976 and Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 are not equipped to handle such cases either. Section 366 of the Indian Penal Code which prescribes punishment for “kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel her into marriage” is perhaps the sole remedy, which may come to a trafficked bride’s rescue. However, it has no legal provision for repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration of victims. Evidently, in the absence of a concrete legal and policy framework, the problem of bride trafficking skilfully persists in India.

In this light, the proposed ‘The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018’ too is plagued with multiple legal and policy issues. Even as Section 31(v) of the Bill stipulates ‘trafficking for the purpose of or under the pretext of marriage’ as an aggravated form of human trafficking, it is incapable of resolving the contorted evil of bride trafficking 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 for the victims of bride trafficking.

It is important here to take note of the Supreme Court of India’s recent verdict in Independent Thought v. Union of India, wherein it pronounced that sexual intercourse with minor brides is a criminal offence. 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. This judgement can serve as a harbinger for the legal and policy fix necessary for coping with the menace of bride trafficking.

However, in this context, we need to acknowledge that while bringing in comprehensive legal remedies can at best deter the practice of bride trafficking, our policy solutions will have to look far beyond fixing the mere legal loopholes. At the root of this wretched practice is the inequitable economical, deluded social and contentious cultural status quo of our country that runs from the rustic floodplains of Eastern India to the vast crop fields of Northern India, and till the time we resolve these hushed up concerns, bride trafficking shall remain a crisis in continuum.

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