Wives shared between husband and brothers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 March, 2006, 12:00am

It would be reasonable to assume that the shortage of women in northern India might have improved their lot, as an increasing number of men are forced to compete for their hand in marriage.

But instead, the shortage caused by 20 years of aborting female foetuses is prompting men who manage to find a wife to share her with their frustrated brothers.

In Haryana and Punjab, men visit remote, poor rural areas to buy wives whose families cannot afford a dowry.

Tripala Kumari, 18, was brought to Haryana last month from her home hundreds of kilometres away in Bihar by farmer Ajmer Singh.

When she realised that Singh expected her to sleep with his two brothers, Kumari refused and Singh allegedly killed her.

He has been arrested and the Haryana government has set up an inquiry into the practice of fraternal polyandry.

In some villages of Haryana and Punjab, the sex ratio is 500 baby girls for every 1,000 boys.

'I came across one case where five brothers were sharing the same woman,' women's activist Subhashini Ali said.

'You'll have one woman being passed around like a sex object.'

These arrangements often go wrong. Police in Uttar Pradesh reported last year that they had registered five cases of fratricide - murder among brothers, provoked by sexual jealousy or rivalry.

Fraternal polyandry also raises social issues. When children are born, who has paternity?

And as men scour India for a wife - often one from a different region, who eats, dresses and speaks differently - there is evidence of growing numbers of family conflicts and mistreatment of the outsider.

'These families don't just need a wife to service the sexual needs of the son, they also need someone to do household and farming work so she is actually a bit like a bonded labourer,' said Preet Rastogi, junior fellow at the Centre for Women's Development and Studies in New Delhi.

'The neighbours ignore her and the community doesn't accept her.'