Rupsona’s kidnappers struck at dusk, when most children in her village in eastern India were outside playing and their parents were resting after tending crops all day. The 14-year-old student had just finished geography class and was walking home along a road lined with rice paddies when she felt a blade at her throat.
The man holding the eight-inch knife and his two accomplices were clear: If Rupsona didn’t quietly climb into a nearby car, they would slit her throat. When the door closed, she was beaten, groped and forced to swallow pills that made her woozy. Two car rides and a train trip later, she and her captors arrived at her final destination: the town of Kaithal, almost a thousand miles from her home. A man was waiting for her. He told her that his name was Sandeep Malik and that she was his wife.
Later she would learn he’d paid $800 to have her abducted. On her first night in captivity, Rupsona said, Malik forced her to have sex again and again. The nightly abuse continued for fourteen months, until she escaped.
“Everyone knows he had sex with me, so I will never be able to get married again,” said Rupsona, sobbing as she described her ordeal. “I am like a cracked egg.”
Now age 16, she sat on a traditional rope bed wearing a green tunic in her parents’ mud-brick home in the district of Malda in West Bengal state, where she was returned a year ago after being rescued by the police. “Every night I have nightmares. They may come again. What is to stop them?”
Rupsona’s abduction, verified by police documents, springs from decades of neglect of female infants and the growth of sex-selective abortions. That has produced the lowest ratio of women to men in India’s history and the lowest in the world among major countries, after China.
A lethal equation in which new wealth has increasingly afforded greater access to technology means that female fetuses have never been at greater risk in India. With ultrasound equipment available to a growing number of people, couples that adhere to the Indian cultural preference for sons can abort pregnancies if they discover they aren’t having a boy.
In an economy that’s grown almost fourfold in the last two decades, young women are abducted mainly from the poorest states, where the sex ratio is more balanced, and transferred to richer regions. About 100,000 Indian women were trafficked for marriage last year. That’s an increase of about 20 percent since 2006, according to New Delhi-based Empower People, a group that fights bride kidnappings.
The declining sex ratio “is an example of how India’s growing economy has aggravated entrenched social problems,” said Ravinder Kaur, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi who has studied bride trafficking for more than a decade and is writing a book on the subject. “To put it bluntly, what we are witnessing is a competition for scarce women.”
Though bride kidnapping also takes place in other Asian nations, India stands out for its combination of rising wealth and reported abductions. In China, the Communist Party moved to stamp out trafficking of women for marriage after it came to power in 1949. In recent decades, as the sex ratio has become more unbalanced, official media cite reports of abductions for marriage, both in terms of females being trafficked internally and into China from South East Asia.
Bride kidnapping has been practiced in Kyrgyzstan since at least the early part of the 20th century and although outlawed is still widespread. In India, bride trafficking was uncommon until about two decades ago, when the shortage of women became increasingly pronounced, said Shafiq Khan, the founder of Empower People.
“Historically it was very rare,” said Khan, who estimates that his organization has rescued about 400 trafficked women in the past seven years. “Now, in parts of the country it’s accepted as normal and it is getting worse by the day.”
Kidnapped brides and sex-selective abortions aren’t the only manifestation of the brutal treatment of women in the world’s largest democracy. In India, some girls are raised to become prostitutes, a woman is raped on average every 21 minutes, a third of all females are illiterate and millions of women lack access to the most minimal level of sanitary protection. The country also performs the most female sterilizations in the world.
The rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student one year ago this month prompted a national outcry and a flurry of lawmaking. But little has changed for millions of women like Rupsona, who has been robbed of her future at a young age.
Tall and thin, her nose pierced with a gold stud and her hair tied with red ribbons, Rupsona spoke with long pauses as she recalled the day she was snatched. She was wedged in the car between two of her abductors, who put their hands over her mouth to silence her screams and kept her from breaking free.
The men told her if she attempted to escape they would bury her in a nearby field and her parents would never find their daughter’s body. Later they fondled her breasts and rubbed their hands between her legs. She was crying and calling out for her mother, Rupsona recalled, sitting in a room decorated with her drawings of flowers and birds.
Several weeks after she arrived in Kaithal, Rupsona was married in a modest Hindu ceremony attended by her husband’s family and a few friends, who were offered sweets and cigarettes. When she objected to being forced into wedlock, Rupsona’s husband barred her from leaving the house. Her routine started at 6.30 a.m., when she woke and made breakfast. The rest of her day was filled with washing, cleaning and other chores for her husband, his parents and a brother.
When the police found her, Rupsona was four-and-a-half months pregnant. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she explained how after her rescue she chose to abort the child she’d conceived with the man she was forced to marry.
Police documents reviewed by Bloomberg News and interviews with officers confirm Rupsona’s kidnapping. Efforts to track down the man whom police say paid for her abduction, as well as his family in Haryana, one of India’s wealthier states, were unsuccessful. Neighbors said the family had absconded after the November 2012 police raid in which Rupsona was freed.
Law-enforcement officials in Malda, the district where Rupsona was bundled onto a train to New Delhi after being shoved into the car, said two of the suspected kidnappers were long-time criminals wanted for other offenses as well, including armed robbery.
“The men are in hiding right now but they won’t be able to do that forever,” said Kalyan Mukhopadhyay, the top policeman in Malda, which has a population of about 4 million people and where fewer than one in four households have a toilet or electricity. “When they need money they will pop up and we will be ready.”
Krishna Tirath, India’s minister for women and child development, cited the government of Haryana in a parliamentary reply to questions in 2011 that there are no forced marriages in the state, where Rupsona was coerced into wedlock. Tirath didn’t respond to three written and three telephone requests for comment. Nita Chowdhury, the top civil servant in the department, didn’t respond to three e-mails and multiple calls.
Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of India’s Planning Commission, which designs the country’s social policies, didn’t respond to three e-mails and two phone calls requesting comment. Pankaj Pachauri, communications adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, referred to a 2011 Singh speech.
“It is a matter of deep regret for us that the sex ratio has shown a decline from the level of the last census,” Singh said in the Aug. 15 address celebrating Independence Day that year. “It is not only necessary to implement the existing laws effectively but it is also essential to change the approach with which our society views girls and women.”
Most bride kidnappings occur in the impoverished parts of rural eastern India, in states such as West Bengal and Assam, where male-female ratios are among the narrowest in the country, meaning a relatively greater supply of women. The victims are snatched or duped by trafficking rings with a promise of jobs, then sold into wedlock in richer states for between $150 and $4,000, police in West Bengal said.
So wretched are the lives of some of India’s poorest women that being kidnapped and sold into marriage can constitute stability. Mariam, who uses one name and is in her early 40s, says she has been living with her husband in the village of Gohana in Haryana since he paid $240 for her 20 years ago.
It was the third time she changed hands. Orphaned at six, she had survived by begging for scraps of food outside restaurants with three brothers and a sister. When she was about 12, she said, a man in a truck told her that he had been sent by her aunt to collect her from the town where she lived near India’s border with Myanmar. She believed him.
He took her to New Delhi and sexually assaulted her for several years, she said. She lived in his home after they were married in a wedding ceremony. When he tired of her, he sold her to another man, who abused her as well.
He eventually sold her to her current husband, a widower now in his 50s whose right side is paralyzed after an accident. She oversees the house and runs a small tea stall in the village.
“I look after my husband and do whatever he needs,” said Mariam, wearing a faded olive-green sari with holes in it as she sat on an orange plastic chair in the sparsely furnished office of Empower People in the town of Nuh in Haryana.
Posters with slogans against trade in women covered the peeling yellow paint on the walls. “We can end bride trafficking with determined action,” read one.
“After everything I have been through I am relatively happy and at least I am safe now,” Mariam said.
The price for a bride is determined by the woman’s age, perceived beauty and whether she is a virgin, the United Nations said in a 2013 report on human trafficking in India.
“Most ‘purchased brides’ are exploited, denied basic rights, duplicated as maids, and eventually abandoned,” according to the report. They are exploited “under conditions that amount to a modern form of slavery.”
Figures from India’s 2011 census show the number of girls born per 1,000 boys dropped to 914, from 927 in 2001 and 945 in 1991. The decline over the past three decades, when India’s population grew by more than 500 million, has been most extreme in the richest states of the northwest, the census showed.
The traditional preference for sons in India is deep-rooted. Men are expected to carry the family name, care for parents in old age and light their fathers’ funeral pyres.
Having a daughter is viewed as incurring a lifetime of debt because of the custom of dowry payments. Female infants are almost twice as likely to die before the age of five than their male peers, the UN said in a 2011 report.
While India outlawed sex-determination tests in 1994, they are carried out widely, especially by better-educated and wealthier parents, according to a 2011 study published in the London-based Lancet medical journal. It estimated that as many as six million female fetuses were aborted in the period from 2000 to 2010.
Ultrasound technology, which became more widely available in the 1980s, has spread to small towns served by traveling doctors who carry the portable machines from clinic to clinic, said Kaur.
An ultrasound machine can be bought online in India for as little as $1,750 and clinics perform the tests for $10 and up.
The Indian government has tried to limit the use of ultrasounds as a tool to determine gender by requiring official registration of clinics. The punishment for revealing the sex of a baby is a prison term of as much as three years and a 10,000 rupee ($161) fine.
Yet enforcement of the law is weak: By 2011, 17 years after the law took effect, there had only been 55 convictions in a nation of 1.2 billion, according to data collected by India’s health ministry.
Of all the increases in reported crime against women in the past decade, kidnapping is up the most. Those cases have risen 188 percent, rapes are up 57 percent and cases of abuse by a husband or his relatives have increased 110 percent. So-called dowry murders, in which a husband or his family kill the bride if the marriage gift from her parents is deemed insufficient, are up 33 percent.
The abducted women are called “paro,” a slang term for “bought women.” Those who fail to bear sons are often resold to other unmarried men at a lower price, according to Empower People’s Khan.
Ronak, who uses one name, said her price fell by a third each time she was sold. She has deep scars on both cheeks that make her look older than her 40 years.
A dark green sari wrapped tight around her thin frame, Ronak stood at the edge of a dirt road on the outskirts of the village of Akeda in Haryana. Her eldest son watched over her protectively as she spoke, interrupting when she was asked sensitive questions.
She recalled warning the second man she was forced to marry that she’d report him to the police after he made her repeatedly sleep with his unmarried brother.
“I thought ‘Why should women be treated like animals?’” said Ronak. “He would tell me ‘What will they do? They won’t listen to you.’”
She was first sold to a 60-year-old man in New Delhi after being lured away from her village in northern Bihar state with an offer of a job as a domestic servant and a monthly salary of 20,000 rupees. After her first husband died, she was sold to the second man.
When he died, Ronak was sold again, this time to a man in his 50s with four children. She lived with him for 15 years, until he died in 2011. After his death, the man’s relatives threatened to sell her for a fourth time but residents in her village intervened and the local leader ruled she could stay in her late husband’s home.
“Usually when someone dies it is a day of sadness but for me it was a day of joy,” said Ronak. “All my life I have been treated like a slave and passed around like an object.”
As with Mariam, contact with Ronak was made with the help of Empower People. Rupsona was found via Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based non-governmental group that fights trafficking and was involved in her rescue. Her parents gave permission for the interviews with her.
Indian law prohibits identification of a rape victim. Accordingly, Bloomberg News has not used the family’s last name or included other identifying details.
In Malda, where Rupsona was put on the train to New Delhi, a police pilot project is underway that encourages people to provide anonymous tips to officers on kidnappings and the whereabouts of abducted women. The program is in effect in 55 villages in the Malda area and will be rolled out in 6,000 more by the end of next year, said Mukhopadhyay, the district’s police chief.
“We know that people know a lot about what is happening but they are reluctant to come to us with the information,” Mukhopadhyay said. “So we have found this is a useful way of extracting it even in the remotest areas.”
It took more than a year in captivity before Rupsona’s husband made the mistake that allowed her to escape. Doing the washing one day, she discovered that he’d left his mobile phone in his pants pocket. She called her sister’s husband, though she was unable to tell him where she was living because she’d never been let out of the house.
He went to the police, who traced her phone. On Nov. 27, five officers burst into the home to find Rupsona pregnant and in the kitchen under the supervision of her mother-in-law.
In a video of the raid, Rupsona is seen clasping her hand over her mouth to indicate she had been kidnapped. The mother-in-law is shouting at the police that the family had paid 50,000 rupees for Rupsona and she was their property.
Since returning home, Rupsona hasn’t gone back to school. She has been treated as an outcast because she had sex with a man outside her community and because of the social stigma of having an abortion.
“People tell me I have brought shame on my family and the village,” she said, adding that she now wants to be a teacher so she can help others like herself.
“I’m ashamed about what happened to me and I want to protect other girls from going through this,” she said. “In India, girls’ lives are miserable. At every stage of life we suffer because of how men treat us.”