Sanjida has just finished the last chore of the day – washing the dishes – and she collapses on the floor in her small two-room house in Haryana, in northern India. It’s nearly 11pm on a winter night and the 26-year-old, dressed in a pale brown cotton salwar kameez, with a shawl wrapped around her head, prepares to have her dinner of chapattis and a lentil stew.

She has been up since 4am – milking the buffaloes, preparing breakfast of rotis and dal for her parents-in-law, husband and four children, doing the laundry by hand near the well close by, cleaning and tidying the house, fetching water from the community well, and preparing lunch for the family before taking the cattle to graze in the field half a kilometre away…

“I’ve got used to doing all this,” says Sanjida, whose face masks the trials and tribulations she has been undergoing ever since she was sold for Rs20,000 (Dh1,164), not unlike a slave, by a relative when she was barely 10 years old.

Originally from the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, Sanjida was growing up as the youngest daughter in a family of eight in a poor household in remote village Nagina, when an aunt offered to take her to Delhi for a fortnight on the pretext of showing her the sights there.

“I was just 10 and so excited. It was the first time anyone was taking me on a trip and when my parents agreed, I quickly packed a little bag with a few clothes and accompanied the woman,” says Sanjida.

But once in Delhi, India’s capital, the aunt sold Sanjida to a woman who treated her like a slave, forcing her to work in the house from morning until late into the night. She toiled for a year, and when she could take it no more, the girl threatened to run away from the house. Infuriated, the owner sold Sanjida to a much older man whose family was looking for a bride for him.

“When I refused to marry him, I was tortured and abused by his family before I was sold to another man named Aslam Ahmad, in Nuh, in Mewat district of Haryana for Rs10,000,” Sanjida says. Luckily for her, Aslam, who is in his fifties, is a loving, caring man, and when he asked her to marry him a month later, she agreed. That was 14 years ago, when Sanjida was just 12 years old and he was 40.

The couple now have two sons and two daughters, aged from four to 11. “I don’t have any complaints now,” she says. “My husband and his family look after me well. I guess I couldn’t ask for more.”

Sanjida is one of the few lucky women. Not all other brides who have been trafficked into Haryana, a state that shares its borders with India’s capital New Delhi, have been as fortunate. Many continue to be abused and work as slaves in the fields of their owners.

Sanjida’s parents, who are poor and uneducated, initially believed that their daughter was with the aunt in Delhi for a fortnight. But when weeks and months passed without any news from her, her father grew suspicious and went in search of the woman who finally told him the truth – that she had sold the girl to a family in Delhi. The distraught father rushed to the capital and eventually found her in Nuh in Haryana. “I was so happy to see my father. He was relieved to see that I was living a reasonably good life,” says Sanjida.

“If my parents had filed a case, everyone in my village would have known that I had been sold a couple of times. I would not have been accepted by the conservative society and our family’s image would have been sullied. No one would marry my sisters or brothers,” says Sanjida, glancing away. Her parents now visit her occasionally.

And as no case was filed against her, the woman who had trafficked Sanjida was never punished.

According to social workers and activists, rampant female infanticide and a skewed sex ratio, among other issues, have spawned a lucrative business of women being abducted or lured from poverty-stricken villages of Assam, West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand, and sold to relatively rich farmers in marriage – farmers who then exploit, abuse and force the women to work in fields. The trafficked women in the villages of Haryana are known as paro (from the Hindi word par, which means from across the state border) or molki (one who is purchased). Most of these women, though sometimes formally wedded, neither get respect in society nor any of the rights of a wife, mainly because the marriages are rarely registered with the local government authorities, say social workers.

“I know several such women in the village,” says Sanjida. “Most of them don’t have the support of parents or relatives as once they’re sold and abused, they become outcasts in society and are disowned by families. Being uneducated, they cannot fight for their rights. And so they continue to suffer all their lives.”

The statistics are shocking: According to the Hindustan Times, a report by the National Crime Records Bureau shows that in 2012 more than 22,000 girl children and women between the ages of 10 and 30 were kidnapped or lured from various parts of the country for marriage.

A survey conducted by Drishti Stree Adhyayan Prabodhan Kendra (the centre for women’s enlightenment), a charity that works to uplift women in India, revealed that out of 10,000 households surveyed in Haryana, more than 9,000 had married women who were from other states.

Another report by a non-governmental organisation called Shakti Vahini had found that every year hundreds of young girls in northern India are sold into a non-formalised marriage where they are exploited under conditions that amount to a modern form of slavery.

The women, the report said, find themselves in places like Mewat, where agents sell them – sometimes repeatedly – to men who cannot find local women for marriage. Cut off from their native states, they are often confined and forced to work as bonded labourers and also have children and look after the family – just like a traditional wife.

Experts say unchecked sex-selective abortions are a major reason for the paucity of girls in the state. According to federal women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi, not a single girl child has been born in 70 villages in Haryana during the past several years.

Many of these villages belong to Mahendragarh district, where the child sex ratio is just 762 girls for 1,000 boys.

The minister told the media last year that many districts of Haryana have a sex ratio in the 775-837 range, which means, “out of each 1,000 girls, 150-225 are being killed [in the womb].”

Social activists say a large number of men – more than 30 per cent, according to some surveys – between the ages of 15 and 44 are unmarried in Haryana simply because they are unable to find a bride in their state, which has the dubious distinction of having the most imbalanced sex ratio in the country – 879 women for every 1,000 men. The national average is 927 to 1,000.

“When men [of marriageable age] don’t get women locally, they obtain them from other states,” says 
Dr Prem Chowdhry, an independent researcher based in New Delhi who has worked extensively on shifting marriage patterns in north India.

Kishan Yadav, a farmer in Mewat, Haryana, is an example. He bemoans the fact that he has not been able to find a wife although “I’m already 34”.

“Soon I will become too old to marry. If I don’t find a bride quickly, I will lose my status in society. People will look down on me and label me a loser. But there aren’t any women in my caste in the village and getting a wife from a neighbouring state is becoming very expensive,” he says.

A broker he contacted promised to find him a wife for a fee of $1,500 (about Dh5,500). “I can’t afford that now,” says Kishan. “But if I find a less expensive one, I will go for it.”

The business of bride trafficking is proving so lucrative that local people in Haryana are setting themselves up as dealers or brokers, sourcing women for men seeking wives or cheap labour.

But the lack of women in the state is not the only reason for trafficking, says Shafiq-ur-Rahman Khan, a social activist who has been working with abused women and fighting for their rights for over 15 years.

“The main reason for bringing in girls from other states as wives is because they are considered low maintenance compared to hiring a labourer,” he says.

“It’s simple economics – a local day labourer costs $140 for a season. But a girl costs just about $100 for life. She is expected to cook, clean the house, work in the fields and bear children. So, what a man pays to buy a wife is easily compensated and saves the family from keeping a maidservant or employing farm labour. It’s a cycle influenced by poverty.”

Founder of Empower People, a charity that works with trafficked brides, Shafiq says: “The issue of bride trafficking has little to do with the skewed sex ratio. In the garb of finding women for reasonably well-off men, these agents are actually fuelling the trade in trafficking girls from other states.” The women end up being sexually exploited as well, he says.

However, an agent who can procure a wife for a price, dismisses Shafiq’s point of view. “See, at the end of the day, the bachelors get wives and the poor girls get food and shelter. The system has worked perfectly for ages. So, we should not read too much into this,” he says.

Shafiq refuses to accept the argument. “Of late, hundreds of cases of deception have come to our notice where young boys make a pretence of marrying girls [without the knowledge of their parents] and then sell them off to middlemen in exchange for money,” he says.

He quotes the case of Rano, 21, a resident of Kolkata. A missed call from a boy named Rahul led to a relationship and two years later, she agreed to elope with him. On their ‘honeymoon’ trip to Delhi, Rahul introduced Rano to a man who he said was his friend, then disappeared.

“Only when Rahul did not return late at night and the man began making sexual overtures did I realise that I had been duped,” she says. Rano pretended to go to the washroom, then ran for hours until she reached a police station. The police contacted her parents in Kolkata, who in turn got in touch with activists of Empower People in the region and requested the charity to care for her until they arrived to fetch her.

“It was by sheer luck that I was able to escape from being sold to someone,” says Rano, who has since been united with her parents. “My aim now is to go into the villages of my state and warn vulnerable young girls who may fall prey to traffickers.”

Shafiq says that a study his charity did in 2012-2013 in Haryana found that Mewat was a major transit point for trafficking. “Sadly, some older women, who were trafficked when young, have also joined the trade to make a quick buck,” he says.

Khurshid, for instance, who was sold for Rs2,000 by her own brother years ago to an old man in marriage, recognised the demand for girls in Mewat and brought seven girls from her village in Bihar.

“After my husband died, I had no means to survive,” says Khurshid. “In some Bihar villages, there’s acute poverty, so I decided to bring girls here and get them married to rich men. I take money from the buyers of these girls and survive on it.”

A teenager is priced between Rs15,000 to Rs50,000, she says.

Shafiq, who has been working hard to help such women, says, “Most of the girls who are bought like this are abused and ill-treated and often resold when the family needs money. It’s truly horrifying.”

Realising that it’s not possible to bring about change overnight in society, he is working hard to raise awareness about the dangers of bride trafficking, despite constant threats of violence from those involved in rackets. As he puts it, “The fight has just begun.”

He was honoured with the Amazing Indian Award by news channel Times Now in 2013 for his work.

“The tragedy is that almost all girls trafficked from other states are unable to understand the local language,” he says. “This makes it difficult for them to run away or seek support. Moreover, since no one files a police complaint, it is not treated as a criminal offence. For fear of dishonour, parents or siblings of the victim prefer to hush up the incident.

“The system of bride trafficking is flourishing in many states due to poverty. Unable to spend on dowry and marriage of their daughters, parents sell young girls as brides to the highest bidders.” One of Shafiq’s staunch supporters in his activism is Gaushiya. “I was brought and sold into marriage in Haryana when I was a young girl,” she says. A middle-aged activist, she has been working with Empower People, travelling throughout Haryana to help the trafficked brides by getting them access to legal support and assistance. She survives on the income she draws from the District Legal Aid Authority, a Haryana government initiative that was started a few years ago to enable women to stand up and speak for themselves.

“Once sold, women are considered worthless by the community. Also, few are prepared to go to the police, believing that far from getting justice, a complaint will leave them further isolated,” she says.

Empower People is not the only NGO working to rescue and rehabilitate girls. However, it’s an uphill task, an activist acknowledged. “Out of 
the thousand cases, one sees only two to three convictions a year mainly because the women are too poor or illiterate to pursue the case 
in courts.”

A police officer who chose to remain anonymous, says, “There are laws pertaining to cases of kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman into marriage, but the problem is that once she is saved, her rehabilitation becomes an issue. As it is, women shelter homes are full and in a bad state.”

Shafiq agrees, “Haryana’s 22 districts have 250 cow shelters, but only three shelter homes for women, which have a capacity for only 150 women, although they house 500 of them. The fact shows that even animals are treated better than women in the state.”

Sanjida, who was lucky to have found a caring man as a husband, meanwhile gets ready for bed.

It’s past 11.30pm and she knows that she has a load of chores for the next day. “In just a few hours it will be daybreak and I have a lot to do,” she says, wrapping a blanket around herself. She looks at her children fast asleep on the bed. The two girls look like angels. “I hope they will have a better life than mine,” she says.