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'I was bought for 50,000 rupees': India's trafficked brides – in pictures

Tahmina, 13, was sold by her sister to a man nearly 30 years her senior. Across India, hundreds of thousands of women and girls are forced into slavery

Pul has travelled 2,000km from her home in Assam, north-east India, to a small government-run shelter in another state where her daughter is waiting. Weeping, she reaches out and clutches 13-year-old Tahmina* to her. She had thought she would never see her again.

Six weeks previously, Tahmina had left her home with her elder sister and brother-in-law. She thought they were going to Delhi. Instead, she was taken to a remote village in Haryana and sold into marriage with a man almost 30 years older than her.

At a safe house run by Empower People, an anti-trafficking charity which helped reunite her and her mother, Tahmina drew a picture that revealed what she had been through.

On pink paper, she sketched stick figures travelling by bus, train and car. At the bottom, she drew herself surrounded by strange people and wrote a number: 50,000 rupees (£557), the price she was sold for.

  • Tahmina, 13, hugs her mother as they are reunited in the Child Welfare Committee in Haryana. Right, Tahmina’s drawing of her story

A few weeks later, and after counselling, Tahmina feels able to talk about her experience. “My sister told me that we were going to Delhi with her husband and his friends,” she says. “They took me to Haryana and kept me in a room. Strange men were coming to see me and offering money and my own sister was outside that room knowing what was going to happen to me.”

  • Jaikam (centre) is well known in the Mewat district of Haryana as being able to supply girls from other states to sell to men who cannot find local women to marry

Tahmina escaped, but across north-west India, thousands of other women and girls are lost to their families and trapped in lives of sexual and domestic slavery as paros – meaning those who have been purchased or sold.

For centuries, bride trafficking has been a booming business in the states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan in north India. There is no official government data on the numbers who have fallen victim to trafficking rings, but it is believed that hundreds of thousands of women and girls, mainly from Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand or Bihar, have been sold into marriage.

According to the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau, 33,855 people were kidnapped or abducted for the purpose of marriage. Half were under the age of 18.

Activists believe the scale of bride trafficking is still not properly understood. A door-to-door survey by Empower People found 1,352 trafficked wives living with their buyers in 85 villages in north India in 2014.

They wanted me to obey them, and if I objected they always had the same words for me: ‘We own you because we bought you’


  • A photograph of a young girl who was trafficked. Jashmir* was 14 the last time her family saw her. It is believed she was sold as a bride somewhere in northern India

Shafiq R Khan, the founder of Empower People, says that women and girls trafficked into marriage often face a bleak life of domestic and sexual servitude.

A 2013 UN Office on Drug and Crime report highlighted that women trafficked for forced marriage are “exploited, denied basic rights, duplicated as maids and eventually abandoned”. Many of these women are resold on the whim of their buyer.

  • Khakdua Reserve in Assam, one of the main districts where girls are preyed on by the bride trafficking industry

“If they are importing their wives because of a lack of girls in their community, they should respect them, but they don’t,” says Khan.

“These women are called paro or molki, which means ‘stolen’ or ‘purchased’, as a way to humiliate them.”

  • Many bride trafficking survivors are forced into unpaid work in the agricultural sector for their husbands and in-laws

  • Sanjida with two of her four children

Sanjida* has lived as a paro in the Mewat district of Haryana for 15 years. She left her home in Assam as a teenager after being promised a job as a babysitter in Delhi. Instead, she was brought to Mewat where she was sold to Mubin for 10,000 rupees.

“There are jobs that local women can refuse to do, but a paro cannot,” says Sanjida. “We don’t have our own families here to stand behind us.”

The practice has been going on for centuries, so some families see it as an acceptable solution when they fail to find a local woman. “Poor men like us, who don’t have much land, have a lot of difficulty in finding a wife here,” says Mubin.

  • Samsuddil and Najida, with their three-month-old son

Samsuddil, a 41-year-old from Mewat, paid 10,000 rupees for Najida*, a woman in her 20s from Assam, after he and his first wife were unable to conceive a child. They now all live together in the same house.

“I bought Najida because I did not have children from my first wife, and having children is important,” he says. “Because I already had a wife there was no local family willing to give their daughter for marriage.”

  • Saeeda with her youngest daughter. Saeeda’s husband bought her more than 20 years ago; she does not know her age or where is she from.

In a nearby village, Saeeda* holds her youngest daughter as she talks about how she was brought to Haryana 20 years ago with her sister.

“I only know that I arrived in Haryana when I was 11,” she says. “I was brought here with my sister but I haven’t seen her since we arrived.”

She was sold to Azim, a widower 20 years older who already had six children by his first wife. She says she was beaten by her husband and his family. “They wanted me to obey them, and if I objected they always had the same words for me: ‘We own you because we bought you.’”

Saeeda was visited by activists from Empower People who told her what rights she had as a wife and mother. Now, her husband has agreed to give her a property in her name, which means that she and her children are secure if Azim dies before she does.

Many paros, she says, are thrown out of the family home when they are widowed. Her home has become a meeting place and refuge for the other paro women living in her village, and she also helps others in her wider community who have been trafficked into marriage.

“Now I have enough courage to fight,” she says.

  • Saeeda and Azim in their home in Mewat district.

Sujana* was rescued from life as a paro after she managed to call her family in Assam.

“I had to work a lot in the field with the cattle, at home, but I never got any money,” the 15-year-old says. “If I refused to do it they beat me up.”

When her family took her home from Haryana she had been forcibly married and was pregnant. Now living with her grandparents and nine-month-old son, she is aware of the stigma she faces without a husband.

“But I don’t care what others in the village think or say about me,” she says. “I just want to bring my child up as a good person.”

Tahmina also discovered the shame of being a paro when she returned home to Assam. Her father refused to have her back in the house and moved with her mother and her siblings out of her village. She now lives with her grandmother, her brief marriage likely to cast a long shadow over her young life.

*Names changed to protect identities