It is nearly five years since Sandhya got married to Dablu. It was a grand ceremony by all accounts involving music, singing and a feast where guests had sumptuous amounts of food to relish.
Dablu, however, is still counting the cost as he went penniless after the big party. The 36-year-old from Uttar Pradesh state in India sold his land - the only source of his livelihood - to raise money to get married. He had no other choice. Well into his thirties, Dablu had searched for a bride in every surrounding village and approached relatives to help him out, but to no avail. "There were just no girls of marriageable age. Men of my age had grown up children and I was still single. I tried very hard but failed," he says.
With both his parents long dead, Dablu did not have the option to leave the matter with elders, as is the custom in most rural communities in India. Recommended by some friends and relatives, he finally approached a marriage-broker who had a successful track record of arranging brides from impoverished villages of distant state Chhattisgarh. So, more than 500 kilometres away and stripped of all his assets for $1000, Dablu married Sandhya.
"Instances like these are increasingly becoming common in India as imbalances in sex ratio are giving rise to social problems," says Sachin Golwalkar, senior programme manager of child rights organisation Plan in India. According to India's 2011 Census, the ratio of girls to boys between 0 and 6 years has dropped to an all time low since records began.
Today, there are just 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. This means India has 7 million more boys than girls aged 0 to 6 years and the gap is growing. In Uttar Pradesh, the figure stands at 899 girls for every 1,000 boys. The ratio is even worse in other states like Haryana (830), Punjab (846) and the national capital Delhi (866).
Despite the Indian Government having enacted the law against using ultrasound technology for sex-selective abortions, continued practice is believed to be resulting in hundreds of thousands of female foetuses being terminated every year.
Plan through its partner Vatsalya, based in Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow, has been running programmes focused on promoting girls rights. The organisation has launched a new intiative- 'Let Girls Be Born' in six Indian states to galvanise action to campaign against female foeticide and address nation's disturbing sex ratio.
The Indian family system values boys as assets with social and economic benefits whereas girls are treated as economic liabilities with huge costs of marriage and dowry," says Vatsalya chief Dr Neelam Singh. With village after village running short of girls, 'buying brides' from other states is now established as a common practice in parts of the country, she adds.
The long distance marriages happen due to its 'dowry-less' nature as the desperate grooms cough up all expenses, in many cases by selling every asset like Dablu or borrowing huge loans beyond their capacity to repay. The brides don't have an easy life either. Uprooted from their home and environment, they are sent across to far-flung places with their husbands, just like Sandhya who accompanied Dablu to his village in Chinhat in Uttar Pradesh.
Such a massive change often means an intimidating new world for brides, who are often young girls from poor families, and the farthest most have ever travelled is to a fair in a nearby village. "I cried for weeks when I arrived. I was separated from my family and friends. I didn't follow the local dialect and customs. I was a total stranger," says 26-year-old Sandhya who left her parents and seven siblings behind.
Poverty often means that such brides may never see their families again. Sandhya hasn't seen hers since she left home. "I don't know if we will ever have enough money to travel to my village and meet my parents, brothers and sisters," she says. Sandhya is probably right. She has two children, a three-year-old boy and a baby girl of one. With Dablu's earnings of just $1 a day for a family of four, it is already a very bare existence for them and chances of ever meeting her family appear scarce.
Sandhya's is not an exceptional story. There are more and more young brides in rural India who are finding themselves in unknown places and unfamiliar cultures as the girls continue to disappear from country's population map. Sadly, majority of brides like Sandhya have little choice or chance.