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Indian-administered Kashmir – Twenty-nine-year-old Nazima Begum* sits cross-legged on the floor of her dark room, the windows covered with tarpaulin. On her lap is her youngest son, five-month-old Taufiq*, who plays with his mother’s face as she talks. Occasionally, she stops to plant a kiss on his head.
Nazima lives in this single room in Srinagar with Taufiq and her two older children, aged seven and 10. Her husband died from heart disease four months ago and although there is sadness in her voice, she says she tries to appear strong for her children.
Hers was neither a love marriage nor an arranged one. Nazima was kidnapped from her home state of West Bengal and transported 1,600km (1,000 miles) to Kashmir, where she was forced to marry a man 20 years her senior who had paid her traffickers $250 for a bride.
With his death, Nazima has been left to support her children alone as she contemplates an uncertain future.
‘We were all terrified’
The daughter of an agricultural labourer who had three other children, Nazima grew up in poverty.
So when, in the summer of 2012, a friend from Nazima’s village told her she’d heard that an NGO was looking to offer women and girls from poor backgrounds jobs in West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata, she decided to take the six-hour train journey to the city.
It was a sweltering afternoon when she arrived at her destination – a large glass building. There were a few men and many women – some her age, others older – she recalls.
One of the men served her tea. All these years later, she still remembers how it smelled of cardamom. And how, soon after drinking it, she found she could no longer talk. Unable to protest, she was led by two men to a car that was waiting outside.
There had been no NGO, no jobs for poor women and girls, no route out of the crippling poverty that had defined Nazima’s life – only traffickers waiting to exploit her.
She was driven to a railway station, where four men waited with four other women. On the train, the women were not allowed to make eye contact with each other, use the bathroom or eat.
“The men looked scary,” Nazima says. “I did not understand what was happening.”
After 20 hours on the train, they reached Delhi. But their journey wasn’t over. The women were put on another train for the 13-hour journey to Jammu, a city in the south of Indian-administered Kashmir.
There, the traffickers handed them over to two Kashmiri men.
“We were all terrified,” she says. “We could not do anything as we were frightened that we might be harmed.”
Hungry and tired, the women were put in a cab and driven through treacherous mountain passes and along unpaved roads in the dark.
“In Jammu, I felt in a completely strange place, the language was completely different,” she says. “It looked like a different world.”
‘An overwhelming fear’
It was 6am when they finally reached Pattan, a picturesque village surrounded by apple orchards and paddy fields, in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, 274km (170 miles) from Jammu.
They were taken to the home of one of the traffickers, where they were made to change out of the clothes they had by now been wearing for days.
Nazima says the new outfits they were told to wear “were not very nice”.
“It seemed they were not even new,” she adds.
As they changed, the women were able to talk to each other for the first time. But they didn’t have long. They would soon be taken one by one and handed over to the men they were to marry.
When Nazima’s turn came, she cried. But she says nobody cared.
“There was an old man who kept a hand on my head and I was introduced to my husband,” she says. “I was not able to understand what they were saying. There was an overwhelming fear in me.”
Then the old man announced that she was married.
‘The traffickers ruined my life’
Nazima’s husband took her back to the single-room home he had shared with his 10-year-old son since his first wife’s death in an accident.
In those first weeks, she cried often. “The night was the most difficult time. I missed my people. I missed the food, the rice did not taste as it did at home. I felt like I belonged to nowhere.” She tried to escape many times, but would only get as far as the cab station before returning.
“I did not want to live here but I was not able to understand what to do,” she says. “The language was the biggest barrier. I was only able to speak Bengali.”
Nazima says her husband treated her well. “He promised me that he would allow me to visit my home because he saw that I was miserable,” she says.
For seven months, she had no contact with her family, who had searched nearby villages for her before eventually concluding that she must have been killed.
So when her husband took her to visit them in West Bengal, they were overjoyed but confused. “They did not know the man accompanying me was my husband,” Nazima explains.
She desperately wanted to stay with her family but was already pregnant with her first child so reluctantly returned to Kashmir with her husband.
Since his death, she has considered returning to West Bengal but says: “I have three children. I don’t know what to do, where to go.”
She is worried that she will add to her family’s financial woes – worsened by her father’s death three months ago – if she returns.
“The traffickers ruined my life. I cannot think of going back,” she concludes, tearfully.
‘Trafficking camouflaged as marriage’
India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded more than 1,700 cases of human trafficking in 2020. This includes adults and children trafficked into marriage, slavery and prostitution. But experts say this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Trafficking is gravely underreported in India,” explains Tarushika Sarvesh, an assistant professor of sociology at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
There are multiple reasons for this.
“Sometimes the families of women and children who are recovered and brought back don’t want to acknowledge the fact that they were trafficked, as trafficking in popular perception is mostly understood as sexual exploitation,” she says, adding that there is a huge stigma attached to this.
Sarvesh explains that trafficking is difficult to detect and report and that “many of its forms don’t attract attention or raise suspicion”.
It is, she says, “visible and invisible at the same time”.
“Adults and children are visible as workers all around us in abysmal conditions, but the backstory of their entrapment is not known.”
Sunita Krishnan is the founder of Hyderabad-based Prajwala, a non-governmental organisation that works to eradicate human trafficking in India. She explains that many people do not recognise bride trafficking for what it is because it is “camouflaged as marriage”.
“When marriage happens all the previous experiences are nullified and marriage is seen as a pious thing and not as a crime,” she says. “People think ‘how can marriage be tantamount to trafficking?’”
West Bengal, Nazima’s home state, is considered one of the hubs of human trafficking in India. There have been more than 350 cases recorded there in the last three years, according to official figures. But experts say the true number is likely to be much higher, as families often find it extremely difficult to prove that their missing members have been trafficked.
Anti-trafficking activists believe sex-selective abortions have contributed to the prevalence of bride trafficking. According to the most recent census, in 2011, India’s sex ratio was 943 females to every 1,000 males. There are more men but fewer women for them to marry.
“[In northern India] it is easy to bring women from other parts [of the country] because people won’t know their background,” Sarvesh explains, adding that this is much harder in parts of southern India where marriages between cousins are more common. “In northern India, people are not interested in knowing the bloodline of the bride or how she landed there.”
In conflict zones like Kashmir, Sarvesh says the issue of bride trafficking becomes more complicated as public institutions do not function as they should and many individual stories are lost among the “meta-narratives of politics”.
‘$35’ for a bride
Abdul Rashid Hanjura is a Kashmir-based lawyer and activist who has worked on human trafficking cases for the past 20 years. He tells Al Jazeera that there is “a full-fledged business for the brokers involved in bride trafficking” in the region. The brokers are the middlemen who connect Kashmiri men looking for a bride with the women trafficked from other parts of the country.
“This happens because of poverty,” he explains. “Many poor men are not able to afford marriage in Kashmir because we have many expensive rituals in which an average marriage costs more than $1,000.”
Trafficked brides – many of whom are underage – can cost as little as $80, he says. Sometimes, they are sold to the agents by their families.
“I saw one case where the agents paid just $35 [to a family],” he adds.
Hanjura believes there are thousands of trafficked brides in Kashmir, with cases dating back to the early 1990s, but says that without proper data the true number is impossible to know.
Al Jazeera spoke to an “agent” in Pattan who did not want to give his name but said he had been involved in arranging dozens of marriages, working as a middleman between those looking to buy a bride and the traffickers. He says the cost of buying a bride ranges from $250 to $500 but denies that the women are forced into marriage.
“Some families who are poor willingly send their daughters for marriage; they also charge some money. Some women willingly come and then don’t like it here and want to escape, then they blame others. But here they have food and everything, in their home states there is more poverty,” he insists.
Hanjura disputes this. He says women and girls are often forced into marriages with much older men.
Nisar Ahmad is in charge of the Kashmiri police’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) and says his department has rescued a number of women and girls forced into marriage over the years. “But we are only able to act when we receive formal complaints,” he adds.
In January, the local government began strengthening anti-trafficking units in Kashmir. But the more than one dozen victims Al Jazeera spoke to say they have little hope that the situation will improve for them or others.
‘The loneliness is most difficult’
Forty-five-year-old Farooq Ahmad married a woman from Kolkata a decade ago. He says his family tried to look for a local bride, but it involved expenses like buying gold, throwing a feast and paying mehr – a sum of money paid by a groom to a bride in Islam. The simplest marriage would have cost him $1,500, he says, but to get a bride from outside cost less than $300.
“We are poor,” he says, adding that more than a dozen men in his village have paid to marry women from other states.
Farooq’s 30-year-old wife, Sabeena*, says she was lured to Kashmir with the promise of a good life, but that it never materialised.
“I was told the man has enough money and has apple orchards. But there is nothing,” she laments. “I experienced a lot of hardships.”
Now Sabeena, Farooq and their eight children live in a mud house that belonged to Farooq’s uncle before his death last year.
“We have no one here, no parents, no siblings. Even if we are beaten we don’t have a parent’s home to go to,” Sabeena says. “The loneliness is most difficult.”
‘If I raise my voice, she will kill me’
Arsheeda Jan* speaks fluent Kashmiri with an accent that suggests it is not her first language. The 43-year-old is originally from Kolkata but now lives in a two-room wooden home on the banks of the river Jhelum on the outskirts of Srinagar city. Her eyes fill with tears as she describes how she arrived in Kashmir more than two decades ago.
Her parents died when she was a child, she explains, and she and her four siblings were sent to live with relatives. “We were very poor,” she says.
When she met a middle-aged Bengali woman who promised her a job in a shawl factory in Kashmir, Arsheeda saw an opportunity to earn some money. She was 13 years old.
“She told me that will provide me with a job in Kashmir and we have to do embroidery on shawls. I had no idea where Kashmir is,” Arsheeda recalls.
She didn’t tell her siblings about her plan.
When she reached Kashmir, the woman, who was herself married to a Kashmiri man, kept Arsheeda in her home for a week. During that time, Arsheeda says she did all of the household chores in the belief that the woman was going to help her build a better life for herself.
“I kept on asking her ‘where is the job?’ Then one day a man and his father arrived with a bearded man who was supposed to do my nikah (marriage contract).”
When Arsheeda cried, the cleric explained that he could not marry her against her will and left. But the family found someone else who was willing to do it.
“The agent threatened me that if I raise my voice she will kill me. I was very scared,” she says.
Still just 13, Arsheeda was married to a labourer nine years her senior.
“When my husband entered my room for the first time, I was shivering. I tried to flee many times but failed. Then I became pregnant. I gave up on the idea that I can ever leave this life,” she says.
Arsheeda, who now has four children, has had no contact with her family in Kolkata since she left.
“When there is a fight with my husband he asks me to leave and pay the money for which he bought me,” she says.
Pointing to a scar on her forehead, Arsheeda explains: “My husband beats me sometimes and he taunts me.”
When her husband is violent, she says she tries to take shelter in her neighbours’ house but that they are unwelcoming. “[They] inform my husband,” she explains. “Some neighbours assume I have slept with many men, that’s how they think I landed here. They don’t understand …”
“Everyone looks at me differently. I still feel alien.”
While Arsheeda has reluctantly adapted to life in Kashmir, she says her childhood memories of her siblings are etched into her heart. She misses the warmth of Kolkata during the harsh Kashmiri winters and the feeling of belonging to a place and a family.
“The hole in my heart will never heal,” she reflects.
*Names of the women and their children have been changed to protect their identities.