Land without brides

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2007, 12:00am

The spectre of millions of single men stalking the land, crazed by the desire for a woman to love, is beginning to be felt in Indian society as a result of decades of female feticide.

Social workers have been warning for years that a shortage of women in India will spell catastrophe. Now a study by the United Nations Population Fund has put a specific figure to this dystopia.

If India's sex ratio continues to be as alarmingly skewed as it is now - an average of 820 girls are born for every 1,000 males in parts of north India - the country will be short of 25 million women by 2030.

That means that a pool of roughly 25 million 'surplus' young males will be burning up with sexual frustration and loneliness. UN experts say such a distortion is unprecedented in human history.

The study warns that the dwindling numbers of women will destabilise family structures, trigger frighteningly high levels of sexual violence against women, encourage the trafficking of women, and lead to polyandry (a male/female sexual union including more than one male).

Experts estimate that over the past 20 years, India has lost 20 million girls owing to the rampant use of cheaply available ultrasound technology by a society which prefers boys, who are seen as assets, to girls, regarded as burdens because of the oppressive dowry required when they marry.

'In many regions, several generations will be affected by a severe marriage squeeze, regardless of what is done today,' says UNFP officer Thanashri Brahme in Hyderabad, south India, earlier this week when UNFP released its study.

In parts of northern India - particularly the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where the shortage of women is particularly acute - men already are reaching marriageable age and failing to find a bride.

Classical economic theory suggests that a scarcity of something enhances it value but this law works only if the commodity in question is valued. Since Indian women are being routinely eliminated in the womb, they obviously have no value and therefore scarcity actually works against them. 'Since the very act of aborting a female fetus is an anti-women act, how on earth could it produce pro-women consequences?' asks Dr Preet Rastogi, junior fellow at the Centre for Women's Development and Studies in New Delhi.

The ghosts of millions of baby girls killed in the womb are coming back to haunt a whole generation of young men unable to find female companions. A quarter of the female population in Punjab and Haryana has simply disappeared.

Men in the villages desperate to marry are resorting to 'fraternal polyandry', where brothers share a wife.

'The woman is formally married only to one brother,' says New Delhi sociologist Ravinder Bhalla. 'Neither she nor her parents have any idea of their real intentions. Later, her husband's brothers also have sex with her. It's not done openly but it's accepted.'

Ms Bhalla has come across a few cases in Punjab where three or four brothers shared the same wife, reducing the woman to the status of a sex object.

These arrangements can go badly wrong. Police in Uttar Pradesh have handled five cases of fratricide in the past year - murders provoked by sexual jealousy or rivalry.

In Haryana last year, 18-year-old Tripala Kumari was killed for refusing to 'service' her husband's brothers. Kumari was brought by farmer Ajmer Singh from her home hundreds of kilometres away in Bihar to marry and live with him.

When Kumari realised that Singh expected her to sleep with his two brothers, she refused. Singh responded by killing her. The murder forced the Haryana government to investigate the growing evil of fraternal polyandry.

Apart from anything else, polyandry raises difficult issues of paternity. When a woman is sleeping with two or more brothers, who is the father and who is the uncle?

The more common solution to the bride crisis, though, is for men to buy a bride from outside their area, from a poorer part of the country where families are so hopelessly impoverished they sell their daughters.

Three years ago, brideless Punjabi farmer Rajeev Lal, 28, travelled to Orissa in eastern India where he bought Aparna Devi, 20, for 8,000 Indian rupees (HK$1,577) and brought her home to his village in Dhahan.

His case is not unusual. Shakti Vahini, an NGO that works for women's rights, says 40 per cent of the men in Lal's village have bought wives. Aparna and Lal have two children now but Aparna does not enjoy the status of a wife even though she has picked up the local language and has adjusted fairly well to different customs, clothes and eating habits.

The other villagers see her as a mere 'arrangement' rather than a true wife. 'She looks after my needs and is a good mother to my children but no one in the village, not even my relatives, calls her my wife,' says Mr Lal.

Aparna is grateful that the 8,000 rupees her parents received helped when her father needed medical treatment.

'Women who have been bought have no rights or status. They are commodities, bought for sex, producing babies, and looking after the home. They are imported women, total outsiders and often little more than slaves,' said Punjab sociologist Atul Baweja.

These women suffer a double disadvantage in that they are outsiders and from poorer families, putting their status at rock bottom.

'One woman I met was being continually beaten because she just didn't understand the housework orders her mother-in-law gave her. She didn't know the language,' says women's activist Subhashini Ali. It is a similar story in Haryana where there are an average of 861 females for every 1,000 males although the sex ratio in some areas is far lower.

'We are seeing many households in every village where wives are bought,' says social worker Raj Singh. 'The pattern is being reproduced across India and we are staring at a huge problem for the future.'

UNFP's estimate of 25 million men without a chance of finding a wife is predicated on India's horribly skewed sex ratio remaining the same. But the figure could prove to be an under-estimation if statistics just published in Punjab are any indication.

While the average sex ratio nationally may be 820 girls for every 1,000 males, in some Punjab villages, the reality is much more dire. Punjab is a predominantly Sikh state and Sikh religious leaders are alarmed.

In a report published earlier this month on villages in Punjab, the top religious authorities reported a sex ratio in many villages that ranged between 438 and 464 women for every 1,000 males.

The UNFP study says that the entire family structure will undergo significant changes from the effect of 25 million men remaining bachelors, either for a prolonged period or forever.

'Many unmarried men will have to be accommodated within the family structure, but with a reduced share of domestic power, because of their marital status. And in areas where a lot of parents have only one son, if he remains unmarried, it means the end of the family line,' the study says.

Trafficking in women has already begun.

Ravi Kant, executive director of Shakti Vahini, has rescued thousands of women, mainly minor girls, being trucked into Punjab and Haryana from other parts of India.

'Female feticide has created a big demand for women and it's being met by trafficking. Some girls are being sold and resold and resold yet again. People have made their daughters vanish but they still desperately need women,' says Mr Kant.

In a culture where men and women can mingle socially and have intimate relationships, the prospect of 25 million single men might not be so grave.

But in India the sexes are strictly segregated (apart from sections of affluent, urban India) and sexual needs are fulfilled only within marriage. That is why women's groups say there will be a surge in sex crimes as desperate men begin to prey on women.

Although no one is collating the figures, Mr Kant says it is noticeable that there has been a rise in cases of rape and sexual abuse from the districts of Haryana.

'It's going to get much much worse. It won't just be women feeling unsafe. All these unmarried men are going to present a law and order problem because, without marriage and families, they are going to become antisocial,' says Mr Kant.

Dr Bikram Dahiya, a former Haryana government official who has fought female feticide for years, paints a Hobbesian picture of the future.

'There will be abductions and rapes, even of minor girls. Even married women won't be safe,' he says.

'Fear of violence will mean women won't go to work or school or college. So forget women's empowerment. We'll have a society where women are kept in captivity instead.'