February 16, 2012


Poor men have been buying teenage brides from afar to dodge dowries, while Kashmir's destitute war widows are ignored

By Betwa Sharma
Photograph: Betwa Sharma for the Guardian
 Sakina, 22, was uprooted from her home in Kolkata 
and sold to a stranger aged over 60. 

Knees pressed against her chest, Sakina huddles near the window of a sparsely furnished house. Her face is lit by a solitary ray of sunlight creeping into the cold room. It creates shadows around the petite woman who is wrapped in a ragged shawl.

Sakina, 22, was a teenager when she was sold by her family for 1,200 rupees (£15) to a stranger over the age of 60. Her sister, who organised the deal, had duped Sakina by presenting a "young good-looking" chap before the marriage ceremony. She was shocked at seeing the elderly man on the wedding night. Rendered helpless by youth and poverty, there was no escape for the bride. "Nobody helped me," she said.

Uprooted from her home in Kolkata, Sakina was sent to live far away in Pakharpora, a small village in the Budgam district of the Kashmir valley. The journey 1,200 miles from east to north meant getting used to an entirely different culture and climate.

Time has passed but Sakina cannot reconcile herself to a husband who fails to emotionally or sexually satisfy her. "For the last two years he has become totally impotent," she said.

The young woman still dreams of marrying someone she loves. But the fear of being torn apart from her two children prevents her from leaving.

There are more stories like Sakina's in Pakharpora and the surrounding villages nestled in the Himalayas. Muslim girls have been given away by their families to Kashmiri men for amounts ranging from 500 to 20,000 rupees. These girls, who are barely educated, belong to poor families from different parts of the country. "I have heard heartbreaking tales and this practice should be stopped," said Lubna Khan, a female doctor who makes a weekly visit to the rural outback, which is seldom visited by outsiders.

"What is wrong with these old men?" asked Khan, the sole confidante to many of the sold brides in the area. Local activists say the selling of brides became prevalent in rural areas during the past decade. They attribute it to the rise in poverty due to the 20-year conflict between the Indian army and the militants, who want Kashmir to be independent.

The trade in brides, however, is not the only tragedy unfolding in this far-flung region. These villages are filled with destitute widows whose husbands were militants fighting to free Kashmir. The compensation from the government is too little for the widows to sustain themselves and their children.

Women activists here are incensed and concerned about Kashmiri men taking young brides from outside instead of remarrying some of these widows.

Shamima was thrown out by her in-laws without a penny after her husband, a militant, was killed in 2004. The 42-year-old widow makes some money from embroidery work, which she uses to take care of her two children and her blind mother. Shamima wants to get remarried to someone who will offer companionship and help raise her children.

But after her husband died she has had to guard her chastity from men seeking to take advantage of her circumstances. Three months after her husband's death she was approached by his best friend.

"He offered to take care of the family if I would be his keep," she said, her eyes welling up with tears. "My husband respected him so much."

Several widows, even the elderly, revealed that they are lonely and seek companionship. "They cannot even say this out loud," said Khan. "They will be ridiculed, if not thrown out by the community."

As the conflict continued, the scenic valley came to be known as the "valley of widows". Many of them were abandoned by their own parents who viewed them as a financial and social burden. The older widows are not always supported by their children. "The name widow means ostracisation, which means all fault lies in the women," said Nighat Shafi Pandit, who founded the Help foundation to assist orphans and underprivileged women.

Pandit suggested that the problem needed to be addressed by religious leaders who could counsel the men to be sympathetic towards the plight of Kashmiri widows.

"If there are so many young widows why aren't Kashmiri men getting married to them?" she asked. "If our Prophet got married to widows, why don't our Muslim men follow that?"

Maqboola Wani, a thin, middle-aged labourer, decided to buy a bride from outside to avoid paying dowry. Wani was not embarrassed by his decision. After vigorously scratching his beard, he jabbed the air with four fingers and then closed them one by one in slow motion. "This is us with no money and little to hope for," he said, slowly folding in the little finger. "We are the bottom."

Similar monetary calculations were being made by the parents of another teenager, Gausia, who comes from Hyderabad in the south.

In their community, the family of the bride pays the dowry. Selling their daughter was a more lucrative option. "They just wanted to pay less," said Gausia, an outspoken young woman now in her twenties. "My parents know I am unhappy and I hope they regret their action forever."

So far from home, the girls literally lose their identity after their names are changed by their husbands. Gausia's name was changed to Gulshan, which sounds more Kashmiri. "He likes the sound of it more," she said. Gausia, who likes her old name, expressed delight at being able to speak in her native language of Urdu with this reporter.

Pandit noted that suddenly displacing young girls from their familiar environment and shoving them into married life caused them trauma. "Then these ladies are also not treated well by their husbands too," she said. "It is a pathetic situation."

Fiercely independent despite her circumstances, Gausia railed against the cold weather, the food and tea served with salt. "They don't brush here often so they avoid sugar that rots teeth quickly," she said, as she prevented her small twin boys from tumbling on the floor. "It was hard to learn these things."

Despite the passage of years, these women still feel anger against the pimps and family members who sold them. Some of them are holding out hope of seeing their homes again. Promises of a visit back, however, are never kept since the train fares cannot be afforded.

"I was told that once a girl gets married, she must live and die in her husband's house," said Gausia.

@ The  Guardian


[Anita Narre will be handed $10,000 by Sulabh International, a non-profit group, for refusing to defecate in the open and sparking a “toilet revolution” in her village in central Madhya Pradesh, according to the district magistrate.


NEW DELHI: An Indian woman has been rewarded for her “bold” decision to leave her marital home within days of the wedding to protest against the lack of a toilet in the household, an official said today.

Anita Narre will be handed $10,000 by Sulabh International, a non-profit group, for refusing to defecate in the open and sparking a “toilet revolution” in her village in central Madhya Pradesh, according to the district magistrate.

“Narre motivated other women of her village to coax their partners to build toilets. The village is transformed today, thanks to her bold act,” B Chadrasekhar told AFP over phone.

Narre left the household of Shivram, a labourer, after her marriage in May last year because the house had no indoor lavatory. She returned only once he had built one with help from district officials.

Chandrasekhar said a sanitation campaign that offered to build toilets in the district free of cost had previously hit a roadblock as villagers thought it was “dirty” to have facilities inside the house.

“Narre’s story is changing mindsets and our sanitation drive is back on track,” he said. “Lots of people from nearby villages have also followed suit and requested us to build latrines. We have moved a proposal to make use of Narre’s good example and take her help to motivate others to use toilets.”

Lack of toilets and other proper sanitation costs India nearly $54 billion a year through hygiene-related illnesses, lost productivity and other factors, a World Bank study has found.

The problem is especially acute in rural areas where women suffer the most due to lack of toilets. “Women have to wait for darkness for the sake of privacy before attending to the call of nature. They have to leave before sunrise or wait for the sun to go down,” Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International said.

“Narre took a very brave step. We announced the award because we want to encourage girls around the country to speak up.”

A UN study in 2010 found more people in India have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet.