Ishaq Kala laughs nonchalantly. 'Give us 5,000 rupees ($878) and we can get you a girl,' he says. Then he giggles to his friend and nods his head. The young bride of 32-year-old Ishaq cost him a little more - 6,000 rupees - and now he smiles with the confidence of a newly-wed. His wife, 15-year-old Memoona, a tiny figure, sits nervously on a charpoy on the rooftop terrace of their home in the village of Jogipur in Haryana. She refuses to look up, fiddling with her fingernails and bright green salwar kameez - another silent victim in India's flourishing trade in human chattel. Her feet dangle, not quite touching the floor, while her mother-in-law Shubani sits next to her. When the teenager finally speaks, she does so in her native tongue of Assamese - a region more than 1,200km from Haryana which straddles India's northeastern border with Bangladesh. 'I was brought here from Assam a month ago by a woman called Amina,' she says. 'I was told I would be married in Haryana ... I did not know what my husband's name would be. When I came here I was sold to a man called Kala for 6,000 rupees, my rate was fixed. Since then I have been here. There has been no wedding ceremony.' Her story - that of a young girl lured into marriage with promises of wealth and a kind husband - is not unusual. Memoona is one of thousands of women who are trafficked to address India's acute shortage of women - a result of the alarming increase in female feticide. The births of 10 million girls in India may have been stopped through abortion and sex selection in the last two decades, research published by the Lancet medical journal last week reveals. The shortage of women in India has risen tenfold from 3.5 million in 1901 to 35 million in 2001, according to the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. The country's average sex ratio is 1,072 males to 1,000 females, the 2001 census, shows, placing India bottom of the pile when compared with neighbours China, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Haryana, the problem is particularly severe. Figures from the Haryana-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Shakti Vahini, which rescues trafficked women and girls across north India, revealed Haryana had 827 girls per 1,000 boys in 1991. By 2001, the sex ratio had dropped to 821 girls per 1,000 boys. The preference for sons among Indian families, regardless of religion, ethnicity or economic background, has been well chronicled. Memoona spends all day in her new home with her extended family, helping with the cooking and cleaning. She hasn't yet learned to speak Hindi and has had no contact with her family since she left Assam. She says her family does not know where she is. 'I won't allow her to contact her family,' says Ishaq, a farmer who insists Memoona is 25 years old. 'If I had her contact her family she would try to get away. My wife tells me 'send me back to Assam' and I tell her 'give me 6,000 rupees and I will send you back'.' The northern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, and Gujarat in the west, have the worst rates of trafficking and female feticide. Growing numbers of women from poor families in east and northeast India, notably West Bengal and Assam, are kidnapped or lured under false pretences to the northern states to be 'married off' to men seeking brides. Ten thousand adult women were trafficked to Haryana in 2003 to be married off, according to Shakti Vahini. Women who fail to bear sons, or who do not please their husbands, are often resold to another wifeless man at a lower price. Human trafficking continues to be exacerbated by the growing number of women in northern India who abort female fetuses. Across India and Haryana, the disparity between the numbers of boys and girls in the zero to six age group is widening. The causes behind growing numbers of female feticide are diverse - economic necessity as well as patriarchal and family traditions which increase the pressure to have sons. It is a grim scenario with which 40-year-old Laxmi Rawat, from Asaoti village in Faridabad, Haryana, is familiar. The mother of five had five abortions in a decade, she says, because she was pushed by her family and the community to bear a son. It was only after giving birth to her final child and only son - now a lively seven-year-old called Praveen - that she and her husband Supal decided not to have any more children. 'I was upset [when I had the abortions]. I was not willing but ultimately [there was] the pressure from my family. [Before my son was born] my mother-in-law said that if I had [another] girl, they would kick me out and my husband would find another wife. 'I was really frightened ... I know there's a link between female feticide and trafficking but if I have four daughters, they will leave [once they get married] but a son will look after me,' she says. Not all women are as forthcoming. Speaking in the presence of her husband, Laxmi's older sister Meera Devi, 42, a mother of two daughters and two sons, denied having had any abortions, although NGO activists claim she has. Pressure to have sons and the importance of marriage has led to many accepting human trafficking as a social necessity, a cultural norm compounded by the fact that the central and state governments, police and judiciary are ill-equipped and reticent to deal with the issue, claim Shakti Vahini activists. 'The traffickers are protected for being the solution because people think that women are needed in different parts of India and these people want to have those girls. The man supplying the girls is [considered] a good thing. How can India shine when our girls are being sold?' says Shakti Vahini founder member Rishi Kant. Shakti Vahini rescued or helped 38 trafficked women and girls last year. The NGO assists the police in identifying cases of human trafficking and rape and advises communities on the importance of valuing daughters as much as sons. It also plans to implement nationwide programmes to help judges deal with cases of human trafficking and female feticide and to co-ordinate interstate police efforts to assist trafficking victims and track down traffickers. 'We have started work on female feticide [but] every minute we are losing the war. India is going to face a similar problem to China - we are already there,' adds Mr Kant. The Indian government recently announced plans to set up surveillance cells and conduct 'sting' operations at clinics suspected of offering sex-selection services or prenatal sex determination - a response designed to reinforce the largely ignored Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act which outlaws sex determination of the unborn child. Plans are also under way to provide girls who have no siblings with free education - a step which politicians hope will stop families viewing daughters as financial burdens. The government is also currently working with United Nations bodies in India to raise awareness about female feticide and trafficking. The shift in political will has been mirrored by a growing realisation, albeit relatively small, that female feticide has grave long-term repercussions, not least because the resulting increase in trafficking is also leading to the spread of HIV and Aids. Celebrities, including Indian teenage tennis star Sania Mirza, have lent support to a central government advertising campaign proclaiming 'Female feticide is a sin'. Film director Manish Jha has also highlighted the issue in the film Matrubhoomi: a Nation without Women, while multifaith religious leaders last November united in New Delhi to publicly denounce female feticide. The governmental policies, while welcomed by NGOs as a step in the right direction, have been criticised as falling short of the mark by activists who claim India affords trafficking victims scant legal protection and law enforcement agencies, including the government, police and judiciary, drag their feet when implementing the law. Mr Kant says: 'Both the states and the central government are failing with regard to trafficking. The police don't know what to do or don't want to do it. We have to train government officials, police officials and the judges because ultimately the cases end up in the courts and the judges don't know how to deal with them.' India's Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, which has twice been amended since its inception in 1956, fails to provide adequate legal protection, he adds. A spokesman for the Department of Women and Child Development said the department has pushed for an amendment to the legislation, in the form of the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Amendment Bill 2005. The amendment will align the act with the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children - to which India became a signatory in December 2002. The change in law, due to become a reality within the next year, would give trafficking victims greater protection, the spokesman added. He said: 'The shortage of women due to female feticide leading to forced marriages may require a new law ... [but] we are proposing to constitute a central authority, a structure which investigates and files cases in this type of situation when women from one state are trafficked to another state. 'Law and order in India is a state issue. It requires a link, a network between states across the country. [The new central authority] will have competent officers to investigate cases drawn from the police and other agencies.' But time is not on Memoona's side. Workers at Shakti Vahini plan to rescue her from her ordeal. Even if the teenager does manage to escape her bondage, recent history has shown another Memoona may well be found to replace her.