Underage girls for sale in Hyderabad: First as a bride, then a sex slave as part of 'contract marriage' racket in city

A contract marriage is a prevalent practice in the city involving agents and Gulf nationals, who arrive in India on a visitor visa

Ismat Ara January 31, 2020 11:05:55 IST
Underage girls for sale in Hyderabad: First as a bride, then a sex slave as part of 'contract marriage' racket in city
  • A contract marriage is a prevalent practice in the city involving agents and Gulf nationals, who arrive in India on a visitor visa

  • They lure poor families and convince them to marry off their daughters for a sum of money which is often less than a lakh rupees

  • Qazis are also part of this network and all the stakeholders get a share of the money paid by the Gulf nationals

Hyderabad: Muneera Begum, 11 years old at the time, dressed in a pretty red frock to go to a dawat, dinner party, put red flowers in her hair and a vibrant smile on her face — as asked for by her mother that night.

However, on reaching, Muneera found the setting of the party a bit strange. The venue was a huge hall painted in white with no decoration. There were four men seated on chairs, wearing loose white outfits with long headgear and some other girls her age, dressed similarly in colourful frocks. There were no other people in the room. No food, except some water and dates. The men stared at her. She entered, reluctantly, with her mother and her two younger sisters, sensing something wrong.

Little did she know that this dinner party was but a bride selection ceremony for the four men seated on chairs. The young girls, all less than 18 years of age, were brought to the hall under false pretences as potential wives for these Omani men.

Muneera was married off to a 75-year-old man the very next day. The year was 2009.

Underage girls for sale in Hyderabad First as a bride then a sex slave as part of contract marriage racket in city

Muneera Begum in 2020. Firstpost/Ismat Ara

In 2020, over a decade has passed, but the incident is fresh in her mind.

"I was taken in front of those men to display my body. I was asked to turn around and show my butt. Some of them even touched me inappropriately, and finally one of them selected me to be his wife. The other girls called me lucky," Muneera says, describing the incidents that took place on that night in the hall. She further said, "When I realised that this man was to become my husband, I started crying. He was even older than my father," she recalls. The man, according to Muneera, had white hair and was round in shape.

"My stepfather who always used to beat my mother, also beat me with a pipe that night and told me he would kill me if I didn't accept the marriage proposal," Muneera further said, revealing details about her forced marriage. According to her, a total of Rs 15,000 was paid to the mother, the father, the priest and the broker, who were all stakeholders in the process of her marriage.

She says, "After the nikah, I was immediately taken to a hotel and locked inside. For two months I was sexually exploited by this man multiple times a day. I was also beaten up and burnt by cigarette butts. I still have those marks on my body…"

After two months, it was time for the Omani man, Muneera's "husband" to go back to Oman. Muneera, tortured and brutally beaten, somehow gathered the courage and made up her mind to go with him, thinking that she would get to sit in an aeroplane, see big buildings and send some money home. But to her dismay, he never asked her to come with him. A week before he had to leave, he said to her, "You want to go back to your mother? Let's get you home."

He proceeded to seat her in an autorickshaw and disappear from her life for the next few months. After three months, when she found out that she was pregnant, she somehow got his number with the help of the broker who had facilitated her marriage and called him. On hearing the news, the man pronounced over the phone: "Talaq, talaq, talaq" and hung up. They never spoke or met again.

"I couldn't abort the child because it was too dangerous. I was pregnant, but still beaten up again by my stepfather for not agreeing to abort the child as my husband wanted. He says I am responsible for my divorce and says I am a burden on this house."

***

Muneera's case is not an isolated one.

The city of Hyderabad, capital to two states, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, besides Hossein Lake, Charminar Fort, Hyderabadi biryani and the shiny bangles is also known for the issue of "contract marriages". A contract marriage is, as the name suggests, one that is bound by a contract. It is a prevalent practice in the city involving 'agents' — the brokers who facilitate these marriages and Gulf nationals, who arrive in India on a visitor visa. They lure poor families and convince them to marry off their daughters for a sum of money which is often less than a lakh rupees. Qazis are also part of this network. All the stakeholders get a share of the money paid by the Gulf nationals.

After the marriage, the 'bride' is either sexually exploited for a few months before being abandoned or divorced by the husband or trafficked out of the country to work as a domestic helper and sex servants for the same man. She is never given the status of a wife.

This practice is not new to Hyderabad.

One such case made the headlines in the year 1991 when a flight attendant, Amrita Ahluwalia, rescued a 10-year-old girl from the plane in which she was flying. Amina Begum, who had been sold to an Arab man by her father for a sum of merely Rs 6,000, was found by Ahluwalia crying next to her 60-year-old husband, identified as MH Saigh, before she informed the authorities.

Even though almost three decades have passed since the incident, things have not got better.

Underage girls for sale in Hyderabad First as a bride then a sex slave as part of contract marriage racket in city

Girls rescued by Shaheen Women's Resource and Welfare Association interacting with the police. Image procured by author

In 2018, a racket was busted in the Mailardevpally region of Hyderabad. Four people, including two women, were arrested from an ongoing contract marriage ceremony. The groom, a middle-aged Sudanese man, had paid Rs one lakh for the girl.

The Hyderabad Police claims that these cases have been contained since a major crackdown in 2017, that saw five Omanis, three Qataris and eight from other Arab countries arrested in similar cases. However, activists claim that the numbers have not gone down and the practice is still prevalent.

According to data provided by Shaheen Women's Resource and Welfare Association, a Hyderabad-based charity that works on the issue of contract marriages since 2002, there have been 156, 83 and 66 contract marriages in Hyderabad in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. The charity says there is an even higher number of actual contract marriages that take place — only some are discovered.

Mahesh M Bhagwat, Rachakonda Police commissioner, who has taken the lead in these cases said, "Many men from West Asia come here on 15-day visas as visitors, solicit girls and then leave the country. It becomes extremely difficult for us to catch these people once they have left the country because the embassies often don't cooperate and there are other protocol issues." He called the issue of contract marriages one of the main problems that the Hyderabad Police is tackling.

Jameela Nishat, an activist who has been working on the issue of contract marriages for over two decades, says, "These sheikhs come to India to exploit minors sexually until they are satisfied. And when they are done, they leave them behind. They are simply used as sex slaves by these men. Their families are often unwilling to take them back, owing to shame and stigma attached with abandoned women. People think she must have done something wrong. These girls often end up homeless, or forced to enter prostitution." According to Nishat, some even attempt suicide.

Typically, four to five girls are presented to a "sheikh", and after careful inspection, he chooses the girl he would like to marry, pays a certain sum of money to the broker and takes the girl away with him. The broker, who can be a man or a woman, then takes out some of the money and divides the rest among the parents of the girl and the qazi. According to Nishat, contract marriages are an easy way to legitimise sexual exploitation of women.

The ban on triple talaq has not helped in curbing the phenomenon because most men have already left the country when they pronounce triple talaq over the phone, and Indian jurisdiction doesn't apply to them. The women who get divorced consider themselves lucky because they can then remarry as per the Sharia. In most cases, according to Nishat, the divorce papers are also signed along with the marriage contracts. In other cases, the husband, who stays with the girl for a few days or more, leaves with the promise that he'll send a visa soon — which never really happens.

***

But not all men abandon their wives. Some take them back to their countries with them.

Often, men who take these young girls with them to their country as wives, make them domestic helpers while also sexually exploiting them. Nishat further explains, "These men have already married many times and these girls usually are their fourth or fifth wives. We once rescued a woman, Shehnaz Begum, from Sudan. She had been sent there with a Sudanese national, who had already been married eight times before. He obviously didn't marry her for love, but simply because he needed a maid to nurse him. So she was not just exploited as a bonded labourer but also sexually." After being rescued, Shehnaz remarried and is finally happy, Nishat says reassuringly.

Underage girls for sale in Hyderabad First as a bride then a sex slave as part of contract marriage racket in city

Jameela Nishat. Firstpost/Ismat Ara

Shehnaz is not an isolated case of trafficking in the name of marriage. The charity Shaheen has recorded several such cases. "These old men on the verge of dying come to India and prey on vulnerable women, often those who are in need of money. Once they convince the family with a huge sum of money, they marry them and take them back to their countries, where they confiscate their passports and make them work as domestic helpers. All these men have to do to divorce them in Oman and most other West Asian countries is to show the victims as disloyal, promiscuous women, and the courts will easily allow the men to divorce these women," a worker of the charity said.

Muneera is now 21 years old and says, "I had a daughter from my then husband, who is now a big girl. I am not ashamed of my past and love my daughters very much." In the years since, she has had another daughter from a love marriage some years after the incident.

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