The Old City area of Hyderabad, home to mainly poor Muslim families, was once notorious as a hunting ground for Arab sheikhs keen to buy young brides.
Now, it's students from North Africa who are exploiting the poverty that resides in so many homes here. They buy marriages with young girls who they abandon when they've finished their degrees in local colleges and are headed home.
Twenty-five-year-old Mohammed Ansari is on a student visa from Sudan. He married a 16-year-old on the ninth of this month. The bride cost him Rs. 50,000 - the deal was brokered by two pimps who lured her mother, a widow with five daughters and no source of income.
After two weeks of being sexually abused by her "husband" and also his friend, the 16-year-old managed to run away to a police station where she sought protection.
The police investigation revealed that when she was married, she was also made to sign a blank piece of paper that was intended to be used later as a khulanama
or a declaration of divorce that certifies the wife is leaving the marriage. In effect, she will be entitled to no alimony or other rights when the marriage ends.
"After arriving here on student visas, these Sudanese nationals trap poor girls into marriage, use them, and when they leave, they already have a divorce paper ready in hand, so they can leave scot free," says senior police officer Vineet Brijlal.
The police have also arrested two pimps and qazis
or priests who performed Mohammed Ansari's marriage. "The girl was accompanied by her guardians. She had not run away from home. So how are we to blame?" asks one of the priests now under arrest.
Records seized from the qazis
have revealed that in the last few months, seven such contract marriages have taken place, involving four Sudanese and three Somalians. One 56-year-old among them had married two minors within a fortnight. In each case, the bride was made to sign the khulanama
right after the ceremony - the marriage was intended to be a short affair, leaving the groom with the freedom to walk away at any point, exempt from any responsibilities.
The police have registered a case of rape, abduction of minor for marriage, outraging modesty and also a case under the Immoral Trafficking Act. The police say they are consulting with the Wakf Board and with other Muslim scholars to see what socio-legal steps can be taken to protect vulnerable young girls from this kind of exploitation. In this case for example, the qazis who performed the marriage are both registered and recognised by the Wakf Board. And both of them claim that they have checked the legality of the documents of both the Sudanese and the bride before solemnising the marriage. It is another matter that the nikkahnama
says the girl was a major, so legally eligible for marriage.