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Betrayed by their own blood

Matter of shame: “The girls’ lives don’t matter as they come from socially marginalised communities where girls matter little and are seen as a burden on their families.” A trafficking victim from Nayatola-Tingheria village of Kursela in Katihar district.   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

She was only 13 when given away in marriage to a groom old enough to be her father. Pyari Devi* can’t quite remember the day she returned home one evening and saw two strangers sitting on the charpoy placed outside their house. She vaguely recalls her parents, both daily wage labourers, pointing out to one of them, the middle-aged man who wanted to marry her. After a hurriedly convened marriage, she was sent off the next day in the company of the two strangers to a strange place far away from her native Katihar. Three years later, Pyari ran away and returned home. The marriage was a sham. She was sold to an abusive man for a sum she is not aware of and made to work like a slave for his family. She is only 17 now but sports the sindoor (vermillion streak) on her forehead — the mark of a married woman — to keep men at bay. “I don’t want to be married again,” she says. Pyari smiles eagerly but breaks into tears when confronted with questions about her marriage. She sells vegetables, making ₹200 on a good day.

Pyari Devi is just a number in the list of girls who are trafficked every year from the impoverished districts of Katihar, Araria, Purnia and Kishanganj in Bihar close to the Nepal border. Illiteracy, poverty and lack of employment are the districts’ trademark. Each year, the Kosi river and its tributaries wreak havoc in the villages, flooding the plains and forcing inhabitants to migrate to Rajasthan, Mumbai and Delhi in search of livelihood. There, they come in contact with local touts who promise them not only jobs but — after gaining their trust — assure a good life to their marriageable daughters, many of whom are underage girls. “The touts often visit villages with local migrant people, stay with them for a fortnight, and lure a poor family to sell off their daughter for marriage with the promise of a good life,” explains Dinesh Kumar, a Katihar-based social activist.

The promise of marriage with money thrown in as bait tempts the illiterate villagers to sell their daughters. After a sham marriage, and a couple of months of not hearing from their daughters, the parents seek the help of the police to locate them. In police records, they find a mention under the category of missing girls. The stories in this narrative belong to girls sold off by their parents and relatives. There are many who are whisked away by strangers, as money exchanges hands. Their lives don’t matter as they come from socially marginalised communities like Paswan and Dhanuk where girls matter little and are seen as a burden on their families. Quite often, their disappearance goes unlamented. It is also difficult to track them down as they are hidden from the public gaze and end up in a prostitution racket from where escape is well-nigh impossible.

Last month, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leader Nand Kishore Yadav flagged the issue of the missing girls in the Bihar Assembly. It was a short-notice question to the Nitish Kumar government, seeking to know the whereabouts of the missing persons. Reading from the National Crime Records Bureau data, Yadav said 3,037 girls have gone missing from different parts of Bihar in 2016 and in 1,587 cases, the police cited “love affair” as the reason. Among the four border districts, the district police records show Katihar at the top of the list with 81 missing cases — 51 girls and 30 boys — since February 2016. A stark reality is the darkness that pervades the district: out of 1,500 villages in Katihar, 970 are without power — the highest number in the country in a district, according to officials.

Sold by her own parents

Pyari Devi from Bakhari village of Sameli block in Katihar districtRanjeet Kumar

Pyari Devi from Bakhari village of Sameli block in Katihar districtRanjeet Kumar  

 

Four years ago when Pyari Devi returned home after a game of hide-and-seek with her friends at the Nayatola-Tingheria village in Kursela block of Katihar, she was asked by her mother Pramilla Devi to get ready for marriage. “I just giggled and thought it was a prank, but my mother was serious. She asked me to pack my favourite dress. No one from the family accompanied me. I had no one to play with,” she says.

After two days of travelling by train, Pyari reached Rajasthan, a place unfamiliar to the unlettered girl who had never been to school, let alone step outside her village. “Along with my middle-aged husband there were three other people in the family and they were into the business of brewing country-made liquor… I was kept in a room at a roadside dwelling and allowed to come out only in the presence of my husband,” she says.

Within a week of her arrival, her ordeal began. She was asked to brew liquor, serve it to people who came to drink and was ordered by her husband to service the men. Her refusal to do so prompted a severe thrashing. Denied food for days, she finally yielded. “One day, my husband informed me that he had sold me for ₹1 lakh to another man,” says Pyari. She contemplated suicide but the noose prepared from a dupatta (long scarf) snapped. It was then that Pyari planned her escape and waited for an opportune moment, which came three years later. She stepped out of her house, turned her back on an abusive marriage, and in the cover of darkness made good her escape, while her husband and his family slept in drunken stupor.

She was lucky to get home. Sporting a silver nose ring, brown polish on her overgrown fingernails, bangles on hands and rubber slippers on her feet, Pyari says she’s happy with her life today. But what if her husband comes looking for her? “I’ll kill him.” He has not come for her yet.

Sixteen-year-old Asha Kumari has a similar story to tell. The eldest of four sisters and a brother, her father Akhilesh Paswan and mother Sunita Devi too are daily wage labourers at Nawabganj Harijan Tola of Sameli block of the district. Six months ago a distant maternal aunt visited her home along with a middle-aged man, Sudhir Rai. Even before she could understand anything, her mother informed her that they would be leaving for a village fair in the Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh, some 600 km from Katihar). “I was excited and started reading names of stations through the train window but Gonda never came,” she recalls, adding that at night, mother, daughter and aunt got off at the Samastipur railway station. Some 10-12 people accompanied them from there. “Brandishing knives and spears they got me married with Sudhir Rai at a makeshift courtyard. My mother abandoned me… possibly fearing for her life,” says Asha.

Confined in a dingy room for three months, Asha was treated like a slave, sexually assaulted by all male members of the family, and forced to do all household chores from dawn to dusk on an empty stomach. She too fled one night and reached the Kishanpur railway station, caught a train for Barauni and onwards to Katihar. For three days she went without food — but hope kept her going. “One day, I just walked out of the house and kept walking. I didn’t know where I was going and hitched a ride on a bicycle after telling the cyclist my story. He dropped me at the railway station and I took a train to Kishanpur. I was lucky that I met some kind people who helped me along and I finally made it to Katihar, where a bus conductor took pity on me and dropped me off at Kursela,” she says.

Asha wants to be a doctor. She knows she was sold off for money to feed her siblings, but doesn’t want to confront her mother with the question.

Every year, scores of girls go ‘missing’ from the districts after such transactional marriages. Kiran Devi, 18, of Bakhri village in Sameli block too recounts her heart-wrenching travail of marriage followed by physical abuse and regular sexual exploitation. After a year of “unbearable daily abuse” she fled from Delhi when she overheard her husband Kamta (she remembers just the first name) negotiating her price with a pimp. “I don’t want to recall those days… even death would have been welcome. I’m happy today,” she says, “and not a burden on anyone.” Kiran sells cosmetics and earns ₹200 a day on average.

Jeetani Devi of Katihar district with a picture of her missing daughter, Neetu Kumari, and a copy of a police complaint she filed.

Jeetani Devi of Katihar district with a picture of her missing daughter, Neetu Kumari, and a copy of a police complaint she filed.   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

 

In mid-February this year, Neetu Kumari, 16, of Milki Nawabganj village in Kursela block went missing and since then her mother Jeetani Devi has been knocking at every door in a desperate effort to trace her young daughter. She doubts a woman in the village who may have played a role in her daughter's disappearance.

Occasionally, a tragedy is averted in the nick of time. Twelve-year-old Akshita Kumari of Balkhi Maheshpur village, a Class VI student, was lucky that she escaped the trap set for her by a local tout. “Her brother and sister-in-law had sold her for ₹20,000 to the local tout, but we came to know and, with the help of other villagers, saved her from being put on the bus out of the village,” says Saryu Mahaldar, her grandfather. Akshita, in a green salwar-suit, looks perplexed and speaks little. She now lives at a relative’s house in the neighbouring district of Purnia. “I don’t want to marry early,” she says.

The band of sisterhood

Four years ago, the girls of Kursela block formed a group called Kishori Samooh. They meet to share stories, carry placards to alert villagers about trafficking, and encourage them to value the girl child. “Main Hoon Badlao, Mauka, Gyan aur Padhai…trafficking aur bal-vivaah ki safai (I am the change. Opportunity, knowledge and schooling will ensure that trafficking does not happen),” reads one placard. “The brokers or touts can be anywhere, in your family, village or at the village shops,” they say at Nawabganj Purab Tola village in Kursela.

“In the last four years there have been over 25 incidents of girls being trafficked from Sameli and Kursela blocks alone… we’ve rescued over 250 trafficked girls from this area in the last 25 years,” says activist Dinesh Kumar, who assists Kishori Samooh. Former head of Raj Muradpur panchayat Suresh Kumar says they have now become vigilant; if a local tout gets caught, he is thrashed before being handed over to the local police station. “It has put a check on things,” he says. “Girls from poverty-stricken families often become easy targets for traffickers but our studies and surveys show poverty is not always the reason behind it… Illiteracy, gender disparity, ignorance, low level of awareness and poor record of law enforcement also contribute to the problem,” explains Shilpi Singh, director of Bhoomika Vihar, a Katihar-based NGO working on human trafficking in the border districts of Bihar.

Waiting for a better tomorrow

In neighbouring district of Araria, similar stories abound. Sangita Devi, 25, of Gaiyari-Rampur village, was sold twice on the pretext of marriage, forced into illegal activities and prostitution, tortured on refusal, and starved for days. She fled when she got an opportunity. The first time, she was sold by her maternal uncle who played the role of a tout; the second time, her brother sold her off for ₹6,000. “No one can be as unfortunate as I am. But I have to live for the sake of my daughter,” says Sangita, whose six-year-old daughter Madhulika Kumari studies in Class I at the village school. She runs a makeshift cosmetics shop. “I shudder whenever a marriage takes place in my village.”

Farha Khatun and Shabnam Ara, both 35 years old, were similarly forced into fake marriages and taken to Delhi, where they were forced into prostitution. Both fled and somehow made their way back to their village in Araria. Farha has two daughters while Shabnam has a son and a daughter. Farha makes savouries for a living while Shabnam sells vegetables in village lanes to eke out their livelihood. “We pray to Allah every day that nobody should experience what we have undergone,” they say in one voice.

District-level child welfare officials in Katihar lay the blame on lax law enforcement, among other things. “There is very low or negligible conviction in trafficking cases,” says Ravi Shankar Tiwari, assistant director of the District Child Protection Unit. “It’s the government’s lackadaisical approach which is responsible for the trafficking of poor girls from the area,” fumes Rajesh Kumar, member of the District Child Welfare Committee. Katihar District Magistrate (DM) Mithilesh Mishra is only two months into his current posting but is aware of the extent of trafficking here. “Out of a total 16 blocks of Katihar, nine get flooded for four months every year leading to displacement and migration, mostly of male members of the family, which leaves girls and women vulnerable to trafficking,” he says. By June, the DM promises, the administration will make a strong intervention.

For the likes of Pyari Devi, Asha Kumari, Kiran Devi, Sangita Devi, however, life is all about making peace with the shock of being betrayed by their own blood.

(Names of the girls have been changed to protect their identities.)


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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 10:00:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/betrayed-by-their-own-blood/article18186403.ece

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