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Amrit Dhillon

Sounding the alarm on wife-sharing Add to ...

A dirty secret is trickling out of villages in northern India: Some men lucky enough to find a wife are letting their brothers sleep with her because the chances of them all finding wives are remote.

After decades of practising female feticide, families are facing the major consequence that’s resulted from the millions of individual decisions by couples to have an ultrasound to see whether the fetus is female and, if so, aborting because of their – and society’s – preference for boys.

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More than 40 million women are estimated to be missing in India as a result of female feticide. In some areas, there are only 858 women to every 1,000 men, compared with the national ratio of 940.

Men of marrying age in northern India, where the practice has been particularly rampant, can’t find wives. I used to think, naively, that if women are scarce, then, like other scarce commodities, their value will go up and they’ll be cherished in direct proportion to their rarity. But the laws of supply and demand don’t apply to this situation. In India’s male-dominated society, women are regarded as inferior. Since the very act of aborting a female fetus is an anti-woman act, how on earth could it possibly produce pro-women consequences?

In this social context, instead of being prized for being “rare,” they’re being exploited more rapaciously than ever now that the shortage is beginning to kick in. Stories are appearing in the press more frequently than before about brothers sharing a wife. And women’s groups and the police are reporting cases of fraternal polyandry.

These wives are treated like domestic slaves because they don’t belong to the local community. Unable to find wives in their own area, men in northern India are travelling to other states, often thousands of kilometres away, to find a wife whose parents are so poor they’ll give away their daughter in return for a few hundred dollars.

When the men return home, the woman is adrift. She doesn’t speak the same language, eat the same food, wear the same clothes or observe the same customs. She’s an outsider who can’t fit in. The family treats her as a drudge, as does the wider society around her.

One activist told me she was scared that wife-sharing could become a trend because of a certain level of “acceptance” derived from the famous Indian epic, the Mahabharata. In this story, which even the poorest villager is familiar with, the five Pandava brothers share one wife, Draupadi.

As frustrated single men roam the countryside, the fear is that India could see a surge of violence against women because, in this society, marriage isn’t an option – it’s a must. The perpetrators of this violence could either be sexually desperate men who know they’re never going to find a wife, or traffickers who’ll kidnap young women to sell to the first buyer. The fear of violence, one activist said, could mean that a time will come when women will be too scared to step out their homes to go to work or school.

Changing the mindset that allows female feticide is going to be a mammoth task. The preference for boys is linked to the practice of having to give a girl a dowry when she marries, a terrible incubus for most parents. On marriage, a girl joins her husband’s family and is deemed to be lost to the parents. Hence the phrase, “raising a daughter is like watering your neighbour’s garden.” Until this mentality changes, there isn’t much hope girls will be welcomed.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India.

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