In the last decade and a half, the male marriage squeeze in economically prosperous North Indian provinces such as Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Western Uttar Pradesh has led to men from these states to pay money to marry women, usually from underdeveloped or economically marginalized regions in Eastern India.
This study, focussed on Haryana and Rajasthan as receiving regions, sought to examine the everyday existence of such cross-region brides within the intimacy of the conjugal household and community. Some questions for the study included looking at intra-gender relations within the family, kin network and community; the subject of integration and assimilation of these women; whether their caste status impacted their lives; and what forms, if any, did gender subordination and gender based violence take vis-à-vis such brides.
The research was conducted in three phases in the districts of Rohtak, Rewari and Mewat in Haryana and Alwar and Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. 226 villages were surveyed with 1247 cross-region brides participating in the survey. Detailed qualitative research followed in 30 select villages with 54 brides participating in it. In the source region of Odisha, research was conducted on a cluster of 10 villages from Bhograi and Jaleswar blocks from Balasore district with 47 families participating in it.
Shortage of women is not common across all caste groups in the conjugal regions, but is endemic in dominant caste groups ofJats and Yadavs. While the well-off from these caste groups are able to marry within locally, men who are underemployed; poor; have little land; suffer from some deformity; are less educated or are old are the ones most often seeking cross-region brides. This practice, however, is slowly spreading to some lower caste groups and among Muslim communities. It is primarily a rural phenomenon where caste hierarchies and regulations governing marriage are more strictly enforced.
Such marriages are non-customary as the women come from different ethnicity, region and sometimes, even religion. Families of these brides are extremely poor, often falling in the category of BPL (Below Poverty Line); have little or no land assets; and rely on seasonal low-paying agricultural wage work. Inability to meet the exorbitant dowry demands made by local grooms that compels them to long distance alliances is the main reason why they opt for ‘dowry-free, no wedding expenses’ offers made by Haryanvi or Rajasthani men.
These marriages are arranged in four ways with grave consequences for the brides depending on which route they get married through. These are: (a.) Trafficking (b) Alliances through marriage brokers or Dalals; (c) Husbands of brides; and (d) Brides as marriage mediators. Though there is trafficking of women for forced marriages, it isn’t as extensive and rampant as media makes it to be. The largest number of marriages are conducted by the cross-region brides themselves, usually of their female relatives in the immediate family or kin networks. Their motivations aren’t solely monetary as they also seek companionship in a culturally alien environment through such alliances. However, most marriages through all routes involve some degree of deception about the man’s economic ability, social status or health.
The men seek alliances only when other female family members, such as mothers, are unable to support them. The brides are ‘needed’ solely for their ability to perform free reproductive and productive labour. They are also preferred over local women as loosening of natal family connections render them vulnerable to domination and abuse. New forms of gender subordination have emerged within conjugal families as extreme demands are made on the labour time of cross-region brides.
The most disturbing finding of our study has been the widespread intolerance exhibited by conjugal communities in Haryana and Rajasthan towards the cross-region brides. These take a number of different forms, the worst being caste discrimination. Caste councils or Khap Panchayats, though taking a tough stance on inter-caste marriages within Haryana, show a studied silence and tacit acceptance of inter-caste nature of these cross-region marriages.
Oppression and discrimination experienced by the low caste groups and the Dalits from the dominant caste groups gets similarly reproduced within the family bringing in wives from other parts of India. They are segregated, isolated and shunned primarily because of their ‘unknown’ caste status though the families, overtly, insist otherwise.
Furthermore, the caste-based exclusion and humiliation is experienced both in public arena and the private space of the family. Caste discrimination is further amplified by exhibition of deep racism against the women and their natal communities. They are pejoratively called ‘Biharan’: a term implying poverty, desperation, filth and savagery. Their parents and natal communities are branded as ‘thieves’, ‘sellers of daughters’ and ‘primitive savages’. The continual denigration is internalized by the brides leading to lowering of their self-esteem and self-worth. As a survival strategy, they minimize social contact with others with negative impact on their mental health.
Most cross-region brides are victims of colourism (darker pigmentation of their skin). Dark skin leads to their rejection in the local marriage market making them more likely to be offered for long-distance alliance, resulting in dislocation from their culture, community and family. Apart from casteist and racist slurs, these brides are considered and often taunted as ugly and dull in intelligence because of their dark skin tone.
Children of such unions face similar racial taunts from their peers and are not accepted as one of their own. These range from sidelining them in games or bullying them with name-calling. Such incidents were high in Rohtak district of Haryana and in Alwar region of Rajasthan respectively. Some older male children have faced difficulty in finding local girls because of their mother’s ‘questionable’ caste identity. More research needs to be done on this aspect to assess its long-term impact.
The brides are subject to heightened surveillance, which varies from total confinement to restriction of their movement within the village. The degree to which this is enforced depends on the a) mode through which the bride has been sourced, i.e., whether she is trafficked, coerced or married with her parent’s approval; b) duration of the marriage; c) amount invested by the family in the marriage; and d) whether she has children or not from this marriage.
Registration of all marriages, notwithstanding any community or religion, should be made compulsory with the proposed bill on it passed as quickly as possible by the Indian Parliament. It will offer protection of gender rights of cross region brides, in case of trafficking; abuse during marriage; desertion by husband; or claiming maintenance or inheritance rights. The benefits of the marriage registration will extend to their children too.
An intensive and sustained awareness campaign outlining the correct process of registering marriages should be undertaken in both natal and conjugal regions. The benefits of the registration should be spelt out differently to each target group.
Panchayati Raj Institutions in both conjugal and natal regions should be used to discuss cross-region marriages; gendered nature of violence that the brides face; and the need to desist traffickers. At least a minimum of one Gram Sabha, especially in conjugal areas, should be devoted to cross-region marriages and its linkage to girl dis-preference and male marriage squeeze.
Government scheme to encourage inter-caste marriages with a monetary incentive of Rs 50,000 should be extended to cross-region marriages with a clause that the wife has to be a non-resident and of low-caste status. Presently, both spouses have to be residents of the same state to claim the benefit. It will ensure that such marriages are registered by a Marriage Registration Officer; lead to reduction in incidences of trafficking; and offer legal protection of human rights of the brides and their children.
The Centre and State governments should prioritize implementation of targeted and tailored prevention initiatives that address core contributing factors to cross region marriages. These should emphasize poverty alleviation schemes; anti-dowry campaigns; education; access to resources; and job opportunities for vulnerable women. Even though all such schemes do exist, tardy implementation prevents these from reaching those it is intended for.
Partnership between the Civil Society Organisations and the Government in conjugal regions on the issue of cross-region marriages and the treatment of brides should be established to allow tabling and discussion of region-specific strategies to protect human rights of the brides. Workshops specifically on the complexity of such alliances and the gendered nature of violence and discrimination should be held for CSOs in conjugal districts to increase awareness levels and to devise grassroots-based intervention strategies.
Further research should to be undertaken to ascertain whether cross region wives are able to access and obtain the same sets of rights and privileges available to local brides. It will determine whether they face barriers in access to resources, be it property rights or government schemes. Similarly, further detailed and phased research on their children should be conducted to find out whether they face differential treatment in choosing marriage partners, access to resources, education, inheritance rights, amongst others.
Research also needs to be conducted to study the mental health status of cross-region brides and, on the basis of the findings, devise targeted interventions aimed at this group. Since a majority experience loneliness, isolation, psychological abuse and emotional violence, it has led to depression and suicidal thoughts apart from elevated levels of stress.
Business cards with helpline information of local feminist advocacy organisations / AHTUs in conjugal regions should be undertaken in some key source-region languages. These can be distributed by Anganwadi and / or ASHA workers to cross region brides in conjugal communities.
About The Film Maker
Reena Kukreja defines herself as a feminist activist and as an independent documentary film-maker. Committed to ethical filmmaking and humane representation of the people in front of the camera, she is committed to a collaborative filmmaking process in which she dialogues with the people whose voice she attempts to articulate; a technique that she has evolved organically over two decades of her working with grass roots organizations. With over 50 documentaries under her belt, she is an accomplished director, scriptwriter, cameraperson and editor. Her documentaries are often used as tools for grassroots activism by communities and advocacy and human rights groups. To mention some, ‘Seeds of Burden’, ‘ Naka Naka DuPont Naka’ and ‘Whose River Is It Anyways?’ have all been used to focus on issues of girl child labor, environmental degradation or displacement of communities due to Transnational Corporations.
Her research interests focus on development, gender issues and migration in South Asia with special emphasis on the impact of globalization and new technologies on the rural poor. She has conducted studies for NGOs in India and in Canada on gender related themes. Her publications also include a detailed work on the portrayal of Muslim women in Indian Cinema. She has given key note addresses and spoken extensively in conferences and seminars on gender issues, conflict and women and ethics in filmmaking.
At present, she divides time between filmmaking, research and teaching at the Department of Film & Media Studies and Women’s Studies at Queens University, Kingston, Canada. She also guest lectures twice a year at the Centre for Conflict and Peace, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. Reena holds a degree in Master of Arts in Film and Communication from India.
A documentary film bearing the same title is also available. Ms. Reena Kukreja who has made this documentary and co-author of this report is currently in New Delhi till 24 March 2013. For those who would be interested in screening cum discussion, you could directly contact her at: [email protected], [email protected] .