Human life is considered priceless, as an unquantifiable entity; during humanitarian crises, we see governments doing everything in their power to save as many lives as possible. Human trafficking and slavery are jarring to the human awareness precisely because they are antithesis of humanity. Subjecting another person to sale and purchase is a violation of their agency and its reduction to a sub-human status. Human trafficking is illegal. This does not mean, however, that it has been eradicated.
Human trafficking occurs in many different forms. Flesh trade, forced prostitution, slavery, and indentured labour are prevalent to this day. India, however, has a more endemic form of human trafficking – bride trafficking. In rural India, horrifying manifestations of misogyny have resulted in unconscionable practices such as female foeticide. This has resulted in a very skewed sex ratio. In Haryana for instance, where bride trafficking is prevalent, the sex ratio for the period 2013-15 was 831 females to 1000 males, the lowest of any state in India.
In places where the sex ratio is low, the natural consequence is that men do not find brides. Men of the upper castes have more ‘options’ than those of the lower castes who resort to buying brides from other villages. Women are being sold by their parents into marriage without their knowledge or consent. At times, women are deceived or kidnapped by ‘agents’ and sold to families looking for a bride.
This practice, referred to as molki, stems from the phrase Mol ki dulhan which literally translates to ‘bride that has a price’. The woman concerned is appraised like cattle on factors such as virginity, caste and beauty, and then sold. Molki marriages are not registered, casting the validity of the marriage into doubt and reducing the brides to fringe elements. These women are exploited sexually and as free labourers in the fields. They are not permitted to own property. In a study, over 80 per cent of the trafficked brides did not have ration cards and were not on the voter lists. They are also denied spousal rights as they are not considered to be a part of the buyer’s family unit. Upon the death of the husband, the family casts off the bride or sells her to another buyer. Often, women who are not sold have to resort to prostitution to fend for themselves and their children.
Molki is becoming worryingly common. Reportedly, 66 per cent of the families that practice molki are Jats, a community of politically and culturally dominant caste in Haryana. This is followed by Sainis at 15 per cent, who enjoy similar political and cultural dominance. This sets a poor example and normalises an abhorrent practice. Colors TV recently released a show called ‘Molkki’ which has been described as being a ‘love story that will break all boundaries and survive all odds’. The protagonist, Purvi, is a strong female lead that is sold to an old sarpanch who is grieving his wife's death. The old sarpanch does not view this marriage as being a relationship. A blurb for the show states, ‘Molkki reflects on how Purvi finds her space in society, wins the respect of the people around her, and manages to establish a relationship based on trust and mutual respect with her much-older husband,’ setting a disturbingly romanticised precedent for the show. Bride trafficking is not romantic, and should be criminalised. Any mainstream acceptance of such an abhorrent practice is cause for alarm. Sexual abuse is rampant within molki, as in child marriage. It would be irresponsible of mainstream media to cast this practice in a favourable light.
Unfortunately, there is no law that specifically prohibits molki. Trafficking of women for sexual purposes is prohibited, as is child marriage. However, there does not exist any targeted legislation for selling women as wives. Outside of legislative reform, the only ways to report and tackle this social evil is by reporting child marriages, and improving the sex ratio in the affected regions. Reporting dowry and strictly enforcing dowry prohibition laws would also discourage parents from selling their daughters. Educating daughters and making them earning members of the household would similarly diminish the likelihood of needing to sell one’s daughter.
Haryana has reported a steep increase in its sex ratio, reportedly reaching 920 girls for 1000 boys in 2019. This was done through concerted campaigns, legislative reform, counselling, and pregnancy tracking. The ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ movement, along with other grassroots efforts, have ensured the reduction of sex selective abortions. Laws that impose criminal consequences on female foeticide are being enforced more strictly. It is critical to sensitise populations and spread awareness regarding the evils of molki. Most of the population is not aware of the existence of this outrageous and cruel practice, and mainstream attention to molki could catalyse its abolishment.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)