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Indian girls sexually exploited in the name of religion

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India’s Devadasi system ‘dedicates’ girls to a life of sex work in the name of religion.

EACH January, as parts of India are gripped by the bitter cold of winter, a horde of devotees throng the tiny temple village of Saundatti in southern Karnataka. Poor men, women and children march in a colourful parade, singing and dancing, to “marry off” the young village girls to the Hindu goddess Yellamma.

The streets leading up to the temple are thick with atmosphere, with peddlers hawking bangles, cosmetics, clothing, sweetmeats and other items, adding to the carnivalesque scene.


In reality, however, there’s little that’s festive about the heinous tradition of the Devadasis (or female servants of god) in India which dates back to the sixth century. Pre-pubescent girls – sometimes as young as three of four – are “married off” by their poor and illiterate parents to “god” under the garb of religion. The Devadasis are then required to “serve” the priests and the local landlords in lieu of payment to their parents.

Childish innocence: Pre-pubescent girls are sometimes ‘married off’ by their poor and illerate parents to ‘god’ in the garb of religion.

“In the olden days,” informs Pandit Bhaskar Reddy, a seventh generation priest, “after young girls are dedicated to local temples, they act as temple caretakers, conduct rituals as well as sing and dance to entertain the wealthy.”

Gradually, however, Reddy says the lines started blurring and the girls got sucked into the ugly vortex of sexual exploitation.

Despite a 1988 law banning the practice in India, the Devadasi tradition is thriving across the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Ironically, these are the IT hubs of the country, now synonymous with India’s progress in the global market.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) estimated in 2008 that currently, there are more than 450,000 Devadasis in India. An NCW survey states that the Devadasis in Karnataka account for approximately 80% of all sex workers while overall, these girls account for an estimated 15% of all sex workers in India.

The practice thrives due to a complex interplay of poverty, social acceptance and sex trade enmeshed inextricably with religious practices that have gradually institutionalised the sexual exploitation of women.

Social activist Asha Ramesh found a direct correlation in a 1993 study, between the dedication of Devadasis to the god to the parents being childless. The parents vowed to dedicate their first child to a temple if it happened to be girl, according to Ramesh’s research. If the parents had no son, then the girl child was “dedicated” and would not be able to marry as she was now deemed to be a “son” and had to earn the family’s bread and butter.

Meanwhile, other clever families with properties ensured that the familial booty remained in house by turning the girl into a “son”. Unfortunately, over the years, the system also became a means for poverty-stricken parents to unburden themselves of daughters.

Devadasi Vaishnavi, 45, who is based in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, says she was around eight years old when she was “married off to god”. Born into a poor family, she vividly recalls her elaborate initiation ceremony as a child surrounded by relatives and strangers.

Over the years, as the practice became illegal, Vaishnavi says she was dragged into prostitution and is now an active sex worker in Sangli’s red light district. “I have been exploited physically and mentally since my childhood,” says the middle-aged woman. “Men have raped and beaten me. The local cops too, exploit me. It is a living hell for me. But what choice do I have?” she asks.

Chandni, 38, was luckier. Or perhaps, pluckier. The Devadasi left the practice at 26 and joined a self-help group in Maharashtra. She now offers support to those who want to leave. She also educates families not to sacrifice their children at the altar for this disgusting practice. She runs awareness programmes at temples and fairs, mobilises community support and lobbies with district officials to help other Devadasis.

According to a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report in 2004, the Devadasi tradition has become synonymous with the commercial and sexual exploitation of women in India.

The report further states that after their initiation as Devadasis, these women migrate either to nearby towns or other far-off cities to practice prostitution.

According to the 1934 Devadasi Security Act, this practice was banned in India by the British. And though the ban was reinforced in the 1980s, it continues to be flouted as the laws aren’t punitive enough. Anyone found guilty of helping a girl to become a Devadasi or even attending the ceremony, can be jailed for three years or fined a paltry sum of US$44 (RM133). Parents and relatives can be fined up to a maximum of US$111 (RM336) if they are found guilty of encouraging the girl to be dedicated.

A survey by the Joint Women’s Programme, Bangalore, states that 63.6% of young girls were forced into the Devadasi system due to tradition while 38% reported that their families had a history of Devadasis. Nearly 40% of them join the flesh trade in cities.

In a way, a Devadasi is considered “public property” in the village. Most Devadasis earn under US$22 (RM66) per month and run a high risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases.

Activists acknowledge that inaccessible villages and a dramatic upward spiral in the demand from organised traffickers who pay attractive sums of money for young girls to fill the urban brothels are the biggest stumbling blocks in obliterating this pugnacious system.

Education for the Devadasi girls is difficult as they are pulled out of schools (if they are sent to one, that is) to follow the tradition. Their health is compromised as they risk the danger of contracting HIV/AIDS. A 1993 government survey indicated that more than 9% of all Devadasis in India were infected with the virus. Those that escape contracting the HIV/AIDS virus are still likely to face physical assaults on their bodies, psychological trauma, and/or social castigation.

“Even if a Devadasi discontinues her ‘career’,” sums up Chandni, “she is still vulnerable to victimisation in human trafficking. Our children aren’t spared because the government does not recognise their birth status as they do not carry their fathers’ surname. This makes it very convenient for traffickers to sell our daughters to brothels.”



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