By Nita Bhalla
BAGHPAT, India (TrustLaw) - When Munni arrived in this fertile, sugarcane-growing region of north India as a young bride years ago, little did she imagine she would be forced into having sex and bearing children with her husband's two brothers who had failed to find wives.
Aid workers say the practice of female feticide has flourished among several communities across the country because of a traditional preference for sons, who are seen as old-age security.
"We are already seeing the terrible impacts of falling numbers of females in some communities," says Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director of children's charity Plan India.
"We have to take this as a warning sign and we have to do something about it or we'll have a situation where women will constantly be at risk of kidnap, rape and much, much worse."
Just two hours drive from New Delhi, with its gleaming office towers and swanky malls, where girls clad in jeans ride motor bikes and women occupy senior positions in multi-nationals, the mud-and-brick villages of Baghpat appear a world apart.
Here, women veil themselves in the presence of men, are confined to the compounds of their houses as child bearers and home makers, and are forbidden from venturing out unaccompanied.
Village men farm the lush sugarcane plantations or sit idle on charpoys, or traditional rope beds, under the shade of trees in white cotton tunics, drinking tea, some smoking hookah pipes while lamenting the lack of brides for their sons and brothers.
The figures are telling.
According to India's 2011 census, there are only 858 women to every 1,000 men in Baghpat district, compared to the national sex ratio of 940.
"It was hard at first, there was so much to learn and I didn't understand anything. I thought I was here to play," said Sabita Singh, 25, who was brought from a village in West Bengal at the age of 14 to marry her husband, 19 years her elder.
"I've got used to it," she says holding her third child in her lap. "I miss my freedom."
Such exploitation of women is illegal in India, but many of these crimes are gradually becoming acceptable among such close-knit communities because the victims are afraid to speak out and neighbors unwilling to interfere.
Some villagers say the practice of brothers sharing a wife has benefits, such as the avoidance of division of family land and other assets amongst heirs.
Others add the shortage of women has, in fact, freed some poor families with daughters from demands for substantial dowries by grooms' families.
Social activists say nothing positive can be derived from the increased exploitation of women, recounting cases in the area of young school girls being raped or abducted and auctioned off in public.
Despite laws making pre-natal gender tests illegal, India's 2011 census indicated that efforts to curb female feticide have been futile.
While India's overall female-to-male ratio marginally improved since the last census in 2001, fewer girls were born than boys and the number of girls under six years old plummeted for the fifth decade running.
A May study in the British medical journal Lancet found that up to 12 million Indian girls were aborted over the last three decades -- resulting in a skewed child sex ratio of 914 girls to every 1,000 boys in 2011 compared with 962 in 1981.
Sons, in traditionally male-dominated regions, are viewed as assets -- breadwinners who will take care of the family, continue the family name, and perform the last rites of the parents, an important ritual in many faiths.
Daughters are seen as a liability, for whom families have to pay substantial wedding dowries. Protecting their chastity is a major concern as instances of pre-marital sex are seen to bring shame and dishonor on families.
Women's rights activists say breaking down these deep-rooted, age-old beliefs is a major challenge. "The real solution is to empower girls and women in every way possible," says Neelam Singh, head of Vatsalya, an Indian NGO working on children's and women's issues.