AS you enter the industrial town of Faridabad, an hour south of Delhi, ornately painted trucks fill the road with dust and the clamour of grinding gears and horns, jostling for space with cars, rickshaws and cattle.
The trucks carry agricultural goods from Rajasthan and bricks and gravel from Haryana. They also carry people – labourers, children, and women in brightly coloured saris – clinging on as the vehicles thunder across half-built roads. Some of these women are evidence of one of India’s huge problems: a prolonged cultural norm of favouring boys has left whole villages without women, young men without wives and a society where infanticide is common.
Trafficking of women is now booming in the region.
“We intercepted a cargo of women from Assam (northeast India) near here recently,” said Ravi Kant, a prominent human rights activist.
“Female foeticide [sex-selective abortion] has created a big demand for women and it’s being met by trafficking, mainly from the northeast,” explained Kant, who heads Shakti Vahini, a human rights group which rescues victims and documents rights abuses. “There is a big problem here in Haryana state and also in Rajasthan and the Punjab. They have made their daughters vanish but they are in desperate need of women.”
Some estimates put the numbers of India’s “vanishing women” at almost 50 million. However, experts say that the figures are misleading since the preference among Indians for sons has meant there has always been an imbalance in the number of men and women.
Nonetheless, in recent decades the trend of decreasing female births is beyond doubt. National census figures from 1991 to 2001 show a 2% drop in the number of girls in relation to boys, and the reduction is thought to be accelerating as access to technologies to scan the sex of a foetus becomes widespread.
In Haryana, there are only 819 girls per 1000 boys aged up to six years whereas in 1991 there were 879 per 1000.
“There is a shortage of women in all the villages we have surveyed in Haryana,” said Kant. “In some areas there are as few as 600 girls per 1000 boys. You even have villages where there is not a girl in sight; where you only see boys going to school.”
Surveys carried out by Shakti Vahini have pointed to rising numbers of trafficked women, known locally as paros (women from outside), who are bought for as little as £50 to £60.
According to its research, about 8000 women have been sold in Faridabad, a district of two million people. Initially sold as wives, many are then resold into sex work or as slaves; each resale pushes their price down.
“Women are cheaper than cows here. And when women are sold cheap that exposes them to abuse,” said Kant, adding that women are lured with the promise of a good marriage. Many end up in forced labour and are subjected to rapes and beatings.
While a shortage of women is not new in India – British colonial officials reported villages with no women in northern India in the early 19th century – some analysts believe the country’s rapid modernisation is creating a demographic time bomb. In September, Unicef reported Indian census figures suggesting a link between higher incomes, access to pre-natal scans and declining female birth rates.
“There is a range of factors causing this decline in the numbers of women,” said Ena Singh, assistant representative of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in India. “It is a misconception that it’s the rural poor and the illiterate who are aborting their girl children. The data shows it’s predominantly an urban problem caused by religious, cultural and economic factors.”
Costly dowries, illegal in India but still common practice, are a major burden on the poor and working classes across the country and fuel resentment towards having daughters. Indian religion and culture puts greater value on boys who are seen as contributing to the wealth and good fortune of families. What is more, only sons can give the last rites to their parents.
“There is a saying in the Ramayana legend,” explained Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights, a Delhi-based think tank, “that girls and animals respond better to sticks; this is really part of our religion and culture.
“When there are proven cases of illegal abortions and trafficking of women, it’s very difficult to get a case filed with the police. This is going to lead to serious social problems if it’s not checked.”
Some experts point to increasing reports of rape and violence against women as evidence that the skewed gender balance is already taking its toll on Indian society. Mounting criticism at home and abroad is starting to push the issue up the political agenda. The US State Department annual human trafficking report this year placed India on a watch list for lack of government response to the trafficking of women and Indian police involvement in trafficking rackets.
Last month, India’s Ministry for Home Affairs called police chiefs to Delhi for a seminar, the first of its kind, in a bid to raise awareness of trafficking issues.
“This is the first time the home ministry has accepted that it’s their task to check trafficking,” said Dr Loveleen Kacker, a senior official at the department for women and child development.
Kacker added that improving and extending women’s education and reducing poverty in states where trafficking is concentrated will yield results in the long run. But changing the mindset of a billion-strong population will take generations.
“People are making a lot of money from selling girls here but they are never prosecuted,” said Ravi Kant, referring to the lack of police action to root out trafficking networks.
“Haryana authorities say that the trafficked women are getting good homes. Maybe a few are. But what about those sold and resold, again and again?”
For the thousands of women who are trafficked across India, change cannot come fast enough. Sunday Herald