09/14/2009, 00.00
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Indian farmers selling wives and daughters to survive drought

by Nirmala Carvalho
As farm production collapses, thousands of women are sold to pay off debts. The authorities say reports are overblown but politicians are struck by incredulity. Father Anand, from the Indian Missionary Society, says no one should be surprised by what is happening. The affected area “is one of the most backward regions of the country,” with a male-dominated patriarchal society.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Debt-ridden farmers in Bundelkhand (Uttar Pradesh) have reportedly been compelled to sell their wives and daughters to moneylenders in order to survive the drought that is currently ravaging much of India. The situation is such that State authorities have launched an investigation. The National Commission for Women is also sending a team to investigate the reports.

India’s farming sector was dealt a heavy blow this year with half of the country reeling from drought.  In a number states entire farming villages have been abandoned and scores of farmers have taken their own lives. But never before had there been reports about women and girls being sold to pay off debts or help families stave off hunger.

Victims in this trade have said that women can cost anywhere between 4,000 (US$ 75) to 12,000 rupees (US 225); the prettier the face, higher the amount the woman fetches. Officially, the sale is garbed up as a formal marriage contract (Vivaha Anubandh).

In Uttar Pradesh, this has led to heated exchanges between the State’s political parties. The ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has come under severe criticism. Kumari Mayawati, also known as the ‘Dalit queen’ because of her low or untouchable caste origins, leads the party.

State officials have said that the issue has been blown out of proportion. They say that claims that thousands of women are involved in this kind of people trafficking are unproven, and that those making them are doing it for partisan reasons. Politicians at both the local and national levels are incredulous. However, Father Anand, a priest with the Indian Missionary Society and a former director of the Vishwa Jyoti Communications (VJC) in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, is not.

“It is not shocking to hear that women are being sold in the Bundelkhand region. This is one of the most backward regions of the country,” he told AsiaNews.

“I have toured various parts of Bundelkhand in the last two decades along with my street theatre troupe trying to bring awareness on social issues,” he said.

The group he headed, the VJC, is dedicated to human rights protection through the promotion of education, culture and the arts. It sponsors groups that travel from rural village to rural village.

“When we visited the villages of Banda, Hamirpur, Mahoba, Chitrakoot and Jhansi districts, it was a tough job to get the women to come out of their houses,” he said.

“Once outside, their faces are fully covered. They watch our programmes with their index and middle finger holding the edges of their sarees around their eyes, opening up minimum space to see what takes place in front of them. Although we couldn’t see their faces, we saw fear, looming around; fear of the men folk, who do not allow any woman to talk or interact with outsiders.”

“These women have to walk miles to fetch water and fuel. They tend the cattle and do jobs in the fields. But all this is done with faces covered—like the horse on the road with a cloth around its eyes, so that it sees nothing else, but only the road just in front”.

“The ghoonghat (veil) is a symbol of the hegemony of men folk, not allowing the woman to see anything around her, but only her husband. She is just a victim of his passion and desires, a commodity to be used and sold after that.”

The selling of wives and daughters are symptomatic of Bundelkhand’s backwardness and underdevelopment.  For Mgr Frederick D’Souza, bishop of Jhansi, “Bundelkhand is one of the most backward and neglected regions of the country, and whilst I am deeply saddened” by the media coverage, I “hope this will bring some awareness of the poverty and backwardness in the region and galvanise the authorities and other people of good will to help.”

For the past 30 years, the Church has been involved in the area, the bishop said. Our “sisters have been in the forefront in starting self-help groups for women, vocational training for girls, crèches  for babies and infants, and many other non-formal technical training activities with the focus on helping our woman and giving them a sense of self worth, dignity and economic independence.”

The Jhansi Catholic Seva Samaj, a social welfare organisation sponsored by the diocese, has been working with women of all ages, social background and faith.

“Hindus make up more than 65 per cent of the [state’s] population, Muslims around 30 and Christians are not even 1 per cent,” the prelate said.

“Our welfare ministry never discriminates on the basis of religion; our mission seeks to serve the people, helping help them to live with human dignity. But the work is hard, going against age-old traditions and customs that seem unshakable.”

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