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Story Publication logo February 28, 2013

A Village in India: Where a Cow Costs More Than a Woman


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Due to cultural preferences for sons, 100 million girls are missing worldwide. Carl Gierstorfer...

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Akhleema and Tasleema, two sisters from Kolkata, who were trafficked to Haryana. Image by Carl Gierstorfer. India, 2013.

It is only a two-hour ride from Delhi to Mewat, a district in Haryana that our driver calls "the badlands." But never be fooled by distance in India because customs, norms, even the rule of law, can change as fast as urban clutter gives way to rice paddies and villages.

Shafiq wants to introduce us to trafficked women in Aterna, a village of a few hundred people. He says in Aterna alone there are 32 of so-called Paro women (a derogatory term for foreigners). Given a family size of at least five people, there is hardly a family without a Paro – as a purchased wife, maid and field laborer, often trafficked from poorer parts of India.

The situation these women are in is nothing short of slavery.

We arrive on muddy roads due to the unusual rains in this time of the year. Ten of the Paro await us in a semi-secret location in a hut in the village. They are eager to share their experiences.

They talk of hard labor, of beatings and of constant abuse. "Even the village children talk to us like dogs," they say.

In fact, after an hour of conversation, we are beleaguered by dozens of people who want to know what is our business "with these Paro women." The mood turns sour, so for the safety of all of us we decide to leave and plan for a return the next day.

This time we are granted a little more time before the villagers turn suspicious. Two of the trafficked women show us the tiny hut they are living in. It's dark, the floor is barren earth, the room is filled with acrid smoke of a cooking fire. Children bang on the closed doors and hurl abuse at us.

The women are sisters from Kolkata who are married to two brothers in the village. But marriage is an incorrect term, as Shafiq points out, because the Paro have no legal status, no papers, no rights. They were simply bought by the brothers and are held like cattle. In fact, in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, a cow is often more expensive to buy than a Paro.

We feel how eagerly the women want to talk to us. But again, the situation becomes tense because of the attention we arouse in the village. We have to find an alternative location. We need to work on a plan to get the girls out of the village.

We also want to speak to the brothers. Shafiq will need to show how deep his reach into the villages really is.

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