The price of being a woman: slavery in modern india

The desire for sons has created a severe shortage of marriageable young women. As their value rises, unscrupulous men are trading them around the subcontinent and beyond as if they were a mere commodity

Tripla's parents sold her for £170 to a man who had come looking for a wife. He took her away with him, hundreds of miles across India, to the villages outside Delhi. It was the last time she would see her home. For six months, she lived with him in the village, although there was never any formal marriage. Then, two weeks ago, her husband, Ajmer Singh, ordered her to sleep with his brother, who could not find a wife. When Tripla refused, he took her into the fields and beheaded her with a sickle.

When Rishi Kant, an Indian human rights campaigner, tracked down Tripla's parents in the state of Jharkhand and told them the news, her mother broke down in tears. "But what could we do?" she asked him. "We are facing so much poverty we had no choice but to sell her."

Tripla was a victim of the common practice in India of aborting baby girls because parents only want boys. Although she was born and lived into early adulthood, it was the abortions that caused her death. In the villages of Haryana, just outside Delhi, abortions of baby girls have become so common that the shortage of women is severe. Unable to find wives locally, the men have resorted to buying women from the poorer parts of India. Just 25 miles from the glitzy new shopping malls and apartment complexes of Delhi is a slave market for women.

Last week, an Indian doctor became the first to be jailed for telling a woman the sex of her unborn baby. India is trying to stamp out the practice of female foeticide. But in the villages of Haryana, the damage has already been done. Indian parents want boys because girls are seen as a heavy financial burden: the parents have to provide an expensive dowry for their weddings, while sons will bring money into the family when they marry, and have better job prospects.

But in Haryana, so many female foetuses have been aborted that there aren't enough women for the men to marry. The result is a thriving market in women, known in local slang as baros, who have been bought from poorer parts of India. Anyone in the villages can tell you the going rates. The price ranges from 3,000 rupees (£40) to 30,000 rupees for a particularly beautiful woman. Skin colour and age are important pricing criteria. So is whether the woman is a virgin.

When the police arrested Tripla's husband, he could not provide a marriage certificate. Generally, there is no real marriage. The women are sexual "brides" only. Sometimes, brothers who cannot afford more share one woman between them. Often, men who think they have got a good deal on a particularly beautiful bride will sell her at a profit.

Munnia was sold when she was only 17. Considered particularly beautiful, she was resold three times in the space of a few weeks. Like Tripla, she came from Jharkhand, but she was lucky: she escaped. Today she is in a government shelter for women. As she tells her story, she breaks down in tears several times.

"My father sold me to a man called Dharma," she says. "I don't know if he paid for me or not. I came to Delhi with my mother on the train, and then Dharma took me to his village. He used to beat me very badly. He used to hit me until I allowed him to sleep with me. Usually it went on for half an hour."

She was with Dharma just 20 days before he sold her.