Brides for India’s North

Frau im Zug

Declining sex ratios due to decades of discrimination against women in certain parts of India have left many men unmarried. An interview about cross-regional marriage migration with Ravinder Kaur.

As marriage remains a social obligation in Indian society, desperation has led to an increasing number of cross-regional and cross- cultural marriages which challenge the rigid marriage systems and the notion of caste. States like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are particularly affected by a lack of women, and in the last decades informal networks have facilitated the migration of brides from eastern and southern parts of the country to these northern states.

The women, usually from poor families, migrate far and cross borders of caste, culture, language and ethnicity – sometimes even religion. Driven by skewed sex-ratios on the one hand and poverty on the other, cross-regional marriages ignore many of the principles engrained in traditional marriages. Controversy over whether cross-regional marriages represent a form of human trafficking or merely a social reaction to a demographic challenge dominates the public debate.

Professor Ravinder Kaur, you have conducted extensive research on a phenomenon in India known as cross-regional marriages. What are the characteristics of cross-regional marriages, and how do they differ from conventional forms of marriage in India?

In most parts of India, especially in the north, the norms of (arranged) marriage predetermine the move of women from their natal homes to their husbands’ family home post-marriage. The possibility and cultural acceptability of the marriage between two people and their respective families are defined by exogamy and require the marriage outside of one’s own gotra or clan but within the same caste. Data from the latest round of the National Sample Survey (NSS 2007-8) show that 91.2 percent of rural women and 60.8 percent of urban women migrated for marriage.

Whereas in most normative marriages in north India spouses usually come from different villages – but from within the same region – there is an upward trend of marriages which are arranged from a long distance and across state, cultural and linguistic borders. In the states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in particular, there have been increasing cases of marriages in which women have been «imported» from eastern and southern parts of the country. These marriages cross borders of caste, culture, language and ethnicity – in some cases even religion. They have been the focus of my academic research in the last ten years. To understand the driving factors of this trend, demographic patterns, and how these marriages are arranged, need to be carefully studied.

In the mentioned states, patriarchal norms prevail and skewed sex ratios are the result of many decades of a preference for boys. The natural consequence of the discrimination against girls before and after birth is that e.g. in Haryana only count around 877 women per 1,000 men, according to the latest census taken in 2011. This demographic imbalance has left many desperate men unmarried. In Haryana, a union formed by unmarried men even took to the streets at the beginning of the 2014 general elections to demand candidates to provide them brides in return for their votes.

In India, marriage predominantly remains a social obligation and important for social adulthood, as courtship and premarital relationships are socially not allowed, although this is slowly beginning to change in urban areas. Marriage combined with the practice of dowry still determines the social status of families, and those who remain unmarried become socially excluded. This explains the desperation with which men in areas that lack women choose to look for women in faraway parts of the country like Kerala, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Odisha – or even beyond country borders – in Bangladesh and Nepal.

Who are the men and women who marry outside of their caste and their linguistic and cultural limits, and what drives them into these marriage arrangements?

This phenomenon is a very distinctive type of marriage migration, and it is very much defined by poverty on the one hand and the skewed sex ratios on the other. The men are from all castes, generally less well educated, with little or no land, agricultural laborers or jobless youth who are unable to find wives due to their lack of social status and high marriage competition in areas that lack women. Many of them are comparatively older than their wives – they have tried and failed to find a wife for many years – and some are physically challenged. In the absence of social security and old-age provision systems, reproduction and a family become a natural survival strategy.

In their desperation, these men’s families mostly do not demand a dowry from the family of the cross-region bride. The women who migrate long-distance for these marriages usually come from very poor families, for whom the mere cost of the dowry poses an existential  threat. They usually come from areas where the sex ratio is more or less equal, but their families are unable to meet the local dowry demands. Some have been married before and have left their marriage due to a broken relationship or desertion, and their chances to remarry in their own community are very low, since separated or divorced women remain stigmatized in the marriage market. Once a woman is married off into another family, it is extremely difficult for her to return to her natal family, primarily because it would bring shame on the family, but also because she would be a financial burden and another family member to feed. For many, a cross-regional marriage is the only and most economical option to secure their existence.

For the families of these women, a cross-regional marriage of their daughter can be a real economic relief. Many such families that I have met have several daughters; therefore the financial burden can be very high. They have heard of states like Haryana and Punjab, which are known to be rich agrarian states with higher per capita income. So they assume that a more prosperous life may await their daughters there.

A field study on the impact of sex ratio on the pattern of marriages in Haryana by Drishti Stree Adhyayan Prabodhan Kendra covering over 10,000 households revealed that over 9,000 married women in Haryana were brought in from other states. In Haryana, one in every five males would stay unmarried unless he imported a bride from outside the state. Currently, many districts in the state have 5–6 out-of-state brides.

How are these marriages organized?

Ethnologists have studied cross-regional marriage migration since the 1980s, although it may have been practiced even long before, as sex ratios in the areas mentioned have been skewed over the last century or more. By studying individual cases of such marriages it becomes evident that the migrant women themselves organize for more women from their communities to migrate as brides to the areas where women are scarce. This is what we call "chain marriage migration": A woman, for example from Assam, has migrated to Haryana, and seeing other men seeking brides in the new community, she encourages women from her natal community to also migrate long-distance for marriage.

It is by no means easy for these women from faraway places to settle and integrate in their new homes, where language and the customs can be extremely different. By arranging for other women from their own community to marry a man in the same village and thus avoid the dowry, they are also building a community for themselves in their new home, far away from their old home and support structures. At the same time, these women who act as go-betweens also get the opportunity to visit their homes, which they would usually either not be able to afford, or their husband’s family would not allow.

As go-betweens, they arrange a cross-regional match and often also organize the wedding. They do not, however, operate like formal agents and also do not earn any money in the process. The money involved merely covers their travel costs into the regions to find potential women and to cover the costs of the wedding ceremony. Unmarried men in states like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh usually get to know about the possibility of this kind of cross-regional marriage by word-of-mouth. In some places these marriages have become very visible and relatively common practice.

The commercial marriage migration that takes place through male agents is still not widely developed and has little in common with the kind of formal marriage agencies that arrange matches for men in South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore with women from less developed Southeast Asian countries. These agencies handle everything from passports and visas to language and cultural training of the women. In India, on the other hand, cross-regional marriages are largely informally organized.

Are there cases of human trafficking – or are most cross-regional marriages taking place on the basis of mutual consent between bride and groom?

Cross-regional marriages have, in recent years, received increasing public attention in India, but the rhetoric that is being used in the reporting is quite diverse and there seems to be a great difference in the perception on this issue. There are some scholars and human rights reporters who have labeled these marriages as bride-buying, human trafficking, and even sexual slavery and condemn it as a form of commodification of women.

Although I agree that there are individual cases in which these allegations apply and that these women face multiple vulnerabilities, I generally look at cross-regional marriages more as a social phenomenon that is unfolding in front of our eyes due to demographic challenges and which may even, in the long run, challenge the rigidities of marriage systems in India. There are so many different types of marriages, and labeling cross-regional marriages as bride buying would be too simplistic. At some level, all arranged marriages are a sort of economic transaction; the concept of dowry, for example, should ideally be termed "groom price" as it guarantees the bride’s family a good groom for their daughter, relative to how much money they pay. So in a sense, men are also selling themselves in the marriage market, if we choose to look at it that way.

I strongly disagree with the claim that bride buying is the main problem here, because that would naturally imply that the family of the bride, her brother or any other guardian would receive money in the exchange. In the decade of my research, I have come across only very few such cases. Instead, the money involved is commonly spent on the expenses of the go-between, i.e. previously migrated women who organize the match.

There are cases of trafficking by male agents who have entered the picture over the last decade or so. These male agents fi nd girls on demand for men who fail to fi nd brides themselves, and if one match does not work out, the girl may be passed on to some other man, where she may or may not settle down. There have been such cases, and they indicate a worrying trend towards the commercialization of women.

There have also been cases of women who have been drugged at a railway station in West Bengal or in New Delhi to suddenly find themselves in a place like Haryana, far away from their homes. This commercialization of the bride trade is the dark side of cross-regional marriages. There have been some opposite cases in which brides were in cahoots with the agents and, after a short stay with the groom, ran away with the household valuables.

What is your assessment of these marriages, especially the situation and status of the women involved?

There are many who view the women who engage in a cross-regional marriage as victims of human traffi cking or sexual slavery. I do not wish to downplay the vulnerability that these women face, but I think it is important to put these marriages into perspective. If we talk about cross-regional marriages as sexual slavery, then the same potentially could apply to a large number of Indian marriages, since there is to date no law in India that criminalizes rape within marriage.

Normative arranged marriages in India often face similar issues; hence I suggest that we must look at it from more than just one perspective. In normative marriages as well as in cross-regional marriages, the wife is the one who leaves her own family circles to join her husband’s, and, in any case, she will need time to adapt to her new surroundings. She is in a new community and enters at the bottom of the family hierarchy, often being used as a servant and only steps up  in terms of status once she has given birth to a son. Unfortunately that is the harsh reality of many, if not most women in India, especially in these areas in the north.

The marriage experience for women in a cross-border marriage is definitely bound to be more strenuous: These women have crossed the borders and boundaries of caste, religion, region, language – basically their whole culture. Their entire identity is compromised. The women, in their role as a wife, are faced with many expectations from their families, who have primarily «imported» them to serve as another help in the household and on the farm.

The gender roles in north India are still very rigid, and men refuse to help around the house, as they are looked down upon if they do so-called female tasks. The workload on many of these women is extreme, and I believe the cross-regional marriage migration always also refl ects a form of labor migration. The women are providing productive labor, reproductive labor, sexual and emotional labor and domestic labor. Unfortunately the various dimensions of what women provide in a marriage are not highly valued.

In my time as a researcher, I have seen how women have adjusted and settled into their new lives over time. In my observations, I have noticed what a difference the level of education of the women makes on how they handle the transition. Women with some level of school education – especially visible in the case of women from Kerala – have been shown to gain a standing in their new families much faster than uneducated women, who on average remain at the receiving end of the family hierarchy for longer.

Poorer women face greater hardship and may be often reminded that they have been "bought" and are thus "owned" by the family they have been married into. In a family, if several sons are unmarried, the mother may ask the bride to sleep with all the brothers – we call this fraternal polyandry or wife-sharing by brothers – and I have come across some instances of this phenomenon. Women find it very hard initially to adjust to the system of ghunghat or face veil which is foreign to them and they find the wheat-lentil diet very different from their rice-fish diet.

However, if women strike up good relationships with their husbands and mothers-in-law and learn the local language, they settle down fairly well. Once they have children, they feel committed to their new marital homes however difficult things may get. Given the distance to their natal families, women in cross-regional marriages have the great disadvantage of lacking autonomy, due to the absence of their families or any other supportive networks. Where can they go and get help if they are being mistreated by their new families?

Cross-regional marriages have become very common in many areas, especially in Haryana, but to date there has not been any effort to establish support structures for these women. I believe that this responsibility lies with the state and I have addressed this issue with the Haryana Government and spoken to the Minister for Women and Child Welfare in Delhi; however, thus far, no one has really paid attention. There is a lot of advocacy that still needs to be done.

This interview was published in Perspectives Asia: A Continent on the Move.