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, who did not want her real name used.
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 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 Jaipalguri, with a population of less than four million, around 200 girls and women have been reported missing. Almost 50 per cent of them are trafficked brides, according to activists. They are either duped by the traffickers or sold by poor parents for sums as low as 30,000 rupees.
In Sunita’s case, she was tricked by a 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 1,600 km journey, he locked her in a room and raped her in front of his wife, who did not say a word, said Sunita. “He said I had to get married and he would set me on fire if I didn’t agree.”
In a matter of weeks, a 45-year-old vegetable seller bought her as a bride.
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 to arrange her marriage. Taking or giving dowry has been illegal since 1961 but it remains a common practice for a bride to be given away with gold, cash, household appliances and vehicles. India banned prenatal sex determination tests in 1994 to curb foeticide but the ban is poorly enforced.
The gender imbalance in Haryana, and the neighbouring states of Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh, has led to trafficking in girls, sometimes as young as 13, from the poorest states like West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam.
The trafficked brides are expected to do the housework and bear children but get little respect.
“He married me to make me work in the house and to look after his elderly mother and three-year-old son, from a first marriage,” said Sunita of her ‘husband’.
She had no say in family matters, was not allowed to make friends or even step out of the house. Local traditions that she found strange, like covering her face in the presence of men, were imposed on her.
“They made me cover my face like this,” Sunita said, dragging her red dupatta, or long scarf, across her face.
“He used to say he loved me,” she said. “I used to ask him: ‘Is this love?’ ”
In her four months of incarceration, she made three attempts to escape. Once she spent the entire day in the maize fields, waist deep in mud, as her husband and other villagers combed the area. She managed to run to the next village but was caught and sent back to her husband.
“He twisted my hand, asking me why I had run away. He made a fist and hit me. And then he picked up a stick and started beating me on my hands and legs,” said Sunita.
Back in her home in eastern India, Sunita’s eldest sister made many trips to the local police station for news of her sister. Eventually, a non-governmental organisation, Shakti Vahini, managed to locate and rescue Sunita.
Said her sister: “She was so thin and was malnourished and had bruises all over. I brought her back home and got her treated.”
The neighbour who sold her was arrested for kidnapping but disappeared after being released on bail. The police took no action against the husband. Marital rape is not a crime in India and it was difficult to prove money had exchanged hands.
For Sunita, life is still full of challenges.
In February, she married a 35-year-old unemployed man but returned to her sister’s home two months later.
“My husband and his family knew about me. But after marriage, he changed. He is unable to accept me and grows suspicious when I talk to a male member of the family,” said Sunita. “I want to live with my sister.”
But she was persuaded to go back to her husband to give her marriage another shot. Said her sister: “At the first sign of trouble, I will bring her back.”
Sunita’s story is not uncommon, according to activists who say curtailing bride trafficking is a complex challenge. Cooperation is poor between the police of India’s various states, prosecution is half-hearted, victims are often too scared or ashamed to testify and many detained traffickers go back to trafficking once they secure bail. In fact, bride traffickers are seldom jailed, even though the law stipulates up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the root cause of bride trafficking into focus when he launched a campaign against female foeticide in January, calling the skewed sex ratio in Haryana a “terrible crisis”.
Mr Rishi Kant, the co-founder of Shakti Vahini, said there were no quick solutions because changing a social mindset takes years, if not generations.
Until then, a preference for sons and poorly enforced laws mean that the lives of women like Sunita are likely to remain in peril.