Nazima lives in this single room in Srinagar with Taufiq and her two older children, aged seven and 10. She says that she tries to sound strong for her children despite the fact that her husband passed away from heart disease four months ago. Nazima was abducted from her native West Bengal and taken 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to Kashmir, where she was made to wed a man 20 years her elder who had paid her traffickers $250 for a bride. After his passing, Nazima was left on her own to care for her children while facing an unknown future. There are millions of cases like this one, so it is not the only one.
India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded more than 1,700 cases of human trafficking in 2020. This includes adults and children trafficked into marriage, slavery, and prostitution.
According to government statistics, there have been more than 350 instances reported there in the last three years. But according to experts, the actual figure is probably much higher because it may be very difficult for families to demonstrate that their lost family members were victims of human trafficking.
Experts say this is just the tip of the iceberg. “Trafficking is gravely underreported in India,” explains Tarushika Sarvesh, an assistant professor of sociology at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Abdul Rashid Hanjura is a Kashmir-based lawyer and activist who has worked on human trafficking cases for the past 20 years. He tells Al Jazeera that there is “a full-fledged business for the brokers involved in bride trafficking” in the region. The brokers are the middlemen who connect Kashmiri men looking for a bride with the women trafficked from other parts of the country. “This happens because of poverty,” he explains. “Many poor men are not able to afford marriage in Kashmir because we have many expensive rituals in which an average marriage costs more than $1,000.”
Trafficked brides – many of whom are underage – can cost as little as $80, he says. Sometimes, they are sold to the agents by their families.
Hanjura believes there are thousands of trafficked brides in Kashmir, with cases dating back to the early 1990s, but says that without proper data the true number is impossible to know.