CAIRO – Abject poverty is forcing poor Indian Muslim families to sell their young daughters to older men for marriage.
"They just wanted to pay less," Gausia, an outspoken young woman now in her twenties, told the Guardian.
Living in abject poverty, Gausia’s family found it more lucrative for them to sell their daughter for an old stranger for marriage.
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"My parents know I am unhappy and I hope they regret their action forever," said Gausia, who comes from the southern city of Hyderabad.
In her community, the family of the bride pays the dowry.
Tying the knot, Gausia was taken by her new husband to live in India-ruled Kashmir valley.
There, her husband decided to change her name to Gulshan to sound more Kashmiri.
"He likes the sound of it more," she said.
Since her marriage, Gausia never saw any of her family.
"I was told that once a girl gets married, she must live and die in her husband's house."
Gausia is not alone.
Sakina, a 22-year-old teenager, was also sold by her family to a 60-year-old Kashmiri man for marriage.
"Nobody helped me," Sakina, a 22-year-old Kashmiri teenager, told the Guardian.
The Kashmiri girl, from Kolkata, was sold at the price of 1,200 rupees (£15). She was duped by her sister before the marriage ceremony.
After the wedding, she was taken by her husband to live in Pakharpora, a small village in the Budgam district of the Kashmir valley, where she found herself in an entirely different culture and climate.
"I have heard heartbreaking tales,” said Lubna Khan, a female doctor who makes a weekly visit to the rural outback.
Activists say that the sale of brides has become prevalent in India’s rural areas in the past decade because of the rising poverty.
“And this practice should be stopped," said Khan.
Valley of Widows
For some Kashmiri men, it is cheaper to get brides from abroad than from inside the province.
"This is us with no money and little to hope for," Maqboola Wani, a thin, middle-aged laborer, told the Guardian.
"We are the bottom."
But the bride trade has sparked anger in Kashmir, where there are many young widows, who lost their husbands in the decades-long conflict.
"If there are so many young widows why aren't Kashmiri men getting married to them?" asked Nighat Shafi Pandit, who founded the Help foundation to assist orphans and underprivileged women in Kashmir.
"If our Prophet got married to widows, why don't our Muslim men follow that?"
Thousands of women in Kashmir have lost their husbands, brothers and sons to what rights activists call “forced disappearances”.
Up to 10,000 Kashmiris have gone missing since 1989, mostly after being detained by Indian security forces who have broad powers of arrest.
At least 2,000 of the disappeared people were young married males, according to the independent Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).
"The name widow means ostracisation, which means all fault lies in the women," said Pandit.
The Muslim-majority Himalayan region is divided into two parts and ruled by India and Pakistan, which have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over the region.
Pakistan and the UN back the right of the Kashmir people for self-determination, an option opposed by New Delhi.
Shamima was thrown out by her in-laws after her husband was killed in clashes with Indian forces in 2004.
The penniless mother of two was approached by her late husband’s best friend.
"He offered to take care of the family if I would be his keep," she said, her eyes welling up with tears."My husband respected him so much."
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Half-Widows… Kashmir’s Lives In Limbo
Kashmir's 20-Year Conflict Legacy
War Widows Selling Their Daughters to Survive