At 25, she was raped by a married neighbour and then sold for 70,000 rupees (S$1,500) to a vegetable vendor.
"When I think of what happened to me, I want to die," said Sunita (not her real name).
Growing up in a poor tribal family in the lush floodplains and Himalayan foothills known as the Dooars in West Bengal, Sunita lost her father before she turned eight. There were days when her family of five, sustained by her mother who did odd jobs and an elder brother who worked in the nearby tea estate, would go hungry.
Tea estates are the main source of jobs in the Dooars but, between 2002 and 2004, more than 20 shut down, leaving hundreds of people jobless. Stories emerged of people starving to death and of gangs trafficking in girls, selling them as brides and domestic workers in northern India.
Sunita was one of them. In her home district of Jalpaiguri, with a population of under four million, around 200 girls and women have been reported missing over the past three years. Almost 20 per cent of them are trafficked brides, says non-profit group Shakti Vahini. They are either duped by the traffickers or sold by poor parents for sums as low as 10,000 rupees.
Sunita was tricked by a man from the northern state of Haryana who had married a local Bengali woman. He offered to help the family get Sunita treated in Haryana for a stomach ailment but after the 1,600km journey, he locked her in a room and raped her in front of his wife, said Sunita. "He said I had to get married, and he would set me on fire if I didn't agree."
Haryana has India's worst gender imbalance - 879 girls to 1,000 boys, which falls below the national average of 940 girls - according to the 2011 census.
The imbalance is caused by a high incidence of female foeticide practised by parents who see a daughter as a burden because social customs demand that a dowry be paid for her to marry.
The gender imbalance in Haryana, and the neighbouring state of Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh, has led to trafficking in girls, some as young as 13, from the poorest parts of states such as West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam.
Sunita was eventually rescued and has since remarried, trapped in another loveless relationship.
Her story is not uncommon, according to activists, who say curtailing bride trafficking is a complex challenge. Cooperation is poor between the various states' police, prosecution is half-hearted, victims are often too scared or ashamed to testify, and many detained traffickers go back to trafficking after securing bail.
This article was first published on July 08, 2015.
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