In India, high demand for wives sends young women into marriages far from home

October 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Lopsided gender ratios in some regions of India have led to a "marriage squeeze" -- high demand for brides -- forcing many underage women to leave their lives behind to wed older men in far away regions. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on the socio-economic factors at play.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next to India for a story about marriages, but not necessarily with a living happily ever after ending. With far more men than women, brides are in demand.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports as part of our Agents for Change series.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Gudia and Babitha are sisters and they share a lot in common. Each is a mother of two young sons. Both live in the same extended family home. And they’re even married to brothers. With their husbands, they have far less in common. The young women come from hundreds of miles away, where dialect and diet are very different. How young are they? That’s a sensitive question.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I’m 28, and she is 25 or 26.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Neither woman went to school and may not actually know their actual age. But Yudhvir Zaildar, a Ph.D. student who has studied the growing number of marriages like theirs says women’s ages are exaggerated because it’s illegal to marry before age 18.

YUDHVIR ZAILDAR, graduate student (through interpreter): I would say in that case, both of them were under 18 at the time of marriage. And in such cases, the husbands are often twice, sometimes three times their age.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Their husbands told me they were 40 and 35. They’re caught in what demographers call a marriage squeeze.

There are no local women to marry, they said, and those who are eligible are taken by people of more means.

MAN (through interpreter): We have no land, we have no steady job. That is the big problem.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The reason there aren’t enough local women to marry is what many people here call the lost girls problem. Daughters are often a financial burden to their parents because of the practice, now illegal, but still widespread, of giving dowries.

These are often in mortgage-size amounts and many times a family’s annual income. So, in the ’80s, when ultrasound scanners became available, many doctors even in rural areas invested in them, offering to tell expectant parents the sex of their fetus and if they were female to terminate the pregnancy.

These sex determination scans are illegal, but hard to police. In some regions of the northern farm states of Punjab and Haryana, there are as few as 650 female births for every 1,000 males. A generation later, that’s led to a shortage of brides in a culture where everyone is expected to marry, says Delhi sociologist Ravinder Kaur.

RAVINDER KAUR, sociologist: Ninety-eight to 99 percent of Indian men and women do get married. So it is considered to be the socially honorable thing to do. It gives people social adulthood because there is no courting, there is no cohabiting before marriage and so how do you move on to the next stage of life?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Men like Ramesh and Brijender find brides like Babitha and Gudia in impoverished parts of India. For their part, these women say their own marital prospects were dim in eastern Bihar state, where they grew up. Marriage has, literally, been a meal ticket.

GUDIA, India (through interpreter): I know my husband is much older, but then we were so poor. There was not enough food, not enough for simple clothing. Here, we eat. We have everything.

WOMAN (through interpreter): We didn’t have a refrigerator, cooler, fans, or television.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But marriage is not always what such women from other regions are led to believe.

The northern farm states, where India’s Green Revolution began in the 1970s, have a reputation in other parts of the country for abundant food and prosperity.

So, 20-year-old Beena says, in the impoverished east, where she’s from, it was not hard to convince her parents to consent to a marriage that would take her a thousand miles away.

BEENA, India (through interpreter): They said it would be fancy, like life in a Hindi movie — big houses, things like that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And what did she find? “Well, you can see for yourself,” she said, of her meager surroundings.

Beena’s parents also had a financial incentive:

BEENA (through interpreter): My family did not receive anything, but they also gave nothing. The middleman got about 30,000 to 35,000 rupees, and the groom’s family paid for that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That’s about $500. Life can be lonesome at times, says Beena, who was married at 15 and now has two children. No one speaks her native Bengali in her now hometown and it took time to adjust to the local diet and customs, but she says she’s become reconciled to it.

BEENA (through interpreter): I’m married now. This is just the way it is. It’s my fate.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She’s better off than many others. Visit any village here in the impoverished rural areas of Beena’s native Bengal and you’ll hear stories of missing young women, many of them minors.

SALEHA BIBI, India (through interpreter): I prayed for my daughter in the mosque, and I gave sacrificial offerings, and I keep praying so I can find her. .

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s been 10 years since Saleha Bibi heard from her daughter Manuara. She and husband, Mazlum Momin, were approached by a stranger proposing marriage to their daughter. They say she was 18 then. Momin says the supposed groom quickly slipped away with their daughter and was never heard from again.

MAZLUM MOMIN, India (through interpreter): I went to the police. They said, fine, but we need a photo of the girl first. And we did not have a photo to give them.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In any event, many people here say, the police are indifferent or worse in such cases.

JABANI ROY, India (through interpreter): There’s no use in going to the police. They would simply accuse us of selling our daughter.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In fact, some people, like Jabani Roy, here with her son Bimal, admit the family received money. “Two thousand rupees,” she said, about $40. It’s been years, and she’s never heard from her daughter.

JABANI ROY (through interpreter): I think something bad happened.

BIMAL (through interpreter): If she would have returned at least once, we would feel better, that she was OK. But she hasn’t even returned once.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kailash Satyarti, one of India’s best-known anti-trafficking activists, says the abject poverty makes victims of both boys and girls. Boys are typically forced into some form of servitude. And, for girls, child marriage is but one form of abuse.

KAILASH SATYARTI, sociologist: They are stolen. They are sold and resold and resold at different prices. And eventually they end up as child prostitute, child slave. They are found being married to old man in Punjab and Haryana and sometimes in Delhi. A 14-year-old girl could have been married to a 40-year-old man.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Back in the village where we started, these elders say the root cause of the so-called imported brides phenomenon — the illegal practice of sex-selective abortion — continues.

SRI RANBIT SINGH, India (through interpreter): It goes on underground. It’s continuing.

JOGINDER SINGH, India (through interpreter): In our society, the status of women is still low. It’s in the mind-set of people. That needs to change. Otherwise, how do we sustain a society?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Sociologist Kaur says everyone knows it’s a problem for the larger society. The challenge is to change the mind-set of individual families.

RAVINDER KAUR: They don’t connect the dots. They’re not seeing that, you know, eliminating their own daughters is leading to this bride shortage. So, if — as long as they can get somebody from somewhere else, they think that’s OK.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But, ironically, experts say, the young sons of Gudia and Babitha may well face less of a bride shortage. Grad student Yudhvir Zaildar says it’s for unlikely reasons.

YUDHVIR ZAILDAR (through interpreter): The reason is these wives who are brought in from outside, they make them pregnant as quickly as possible and produce many children so that they won’t run away.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That means fewer abortions of female fetuses and more local girls to marry local boys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A version of Fred’s story aired on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”

His reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.