Begum Nirmala wants nothing more than to get married. But that will never happen. From an early age, she had been dedicated to a goddess and then partnered with various men for years of sexual subjugation. By the age of 20, Gauri, who is from Telangana, had aborted four pregnancies and now she takes care of her disabled brother, earning a monthly salary of only 1,000 rupees ($15) from part-time domestic work.
In the region where the Indian states of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana meet, the traditional practice of devadasis lingers, despite having been banned in 1988. Girls between the ages of 10 and 12, belonging to the Maha Dalit caste, are subjected to a ceremony in which they are dedicated to a goddess. With a necklace tied around her neck, a girl is committed to a life as a devadasi, literally translated as “servant of God.” In reality, however, she becomes a servant to men, mainly to be used for sex.
After the ceremony, the girl is paraded out in public: While the custom is to go and beg alms from houses, this serves to acknowledge her availability and invite extra-marital alliances. Once a man’s proposal for a devadasi is accepted by her parents, he is obliged to financially support her and her family. But often, he quickly loses interest and she and her family are left to fend for themselves. She is never allowed to marry, because she is considered to be married to God.
Begging is a cultural right of the devadasi, and the villagers of her community are obliged to give her food. If her partner is abusive or corrupt, she can ask him to leave so she can take another partner. But exercising this “right” earns the devadasis a reputation as “sulagis” – prostitutes – leading to lifelong discrimination and ostracization.
At Sampark, we have been working with devadasis in the Koppal district since 1997. With our help, the women have organized themselves into Self-Help Groups (SHGs) that serve not only as cooperatives to engage in financial dealings and enterprise awareness, but also as safe spaces for social and political empowerment.
The SHGs bring together women from different castes and allow them access to small loans for day-to-day consumption, such as buying food in lean periods, or for investment and income generation – for instance, as funding for agriculture, cows and buffaloes or small shops. The model offers the women the financial support they need to educate their children and offer them vocational training with a view to eliminating intergenerational poverty. Sampark has committed to working with these women for a long period – five to seven years at least – to ensure they have the time to overcome their multiple constraints gradually.
The legal way to protect devadasis would be to invoke the laws against child sexual abuse and caste-based atrocities, and provide child protection to the dedicated girls. However, few NGOs have been able to use this legal route to stop the practice, as the laws are poorly implemented and many families dedicate their daughters in secret.
A sustainable solution to ending the practice of devadasis requires addressing the root causes of the problem: poverty, caste and oppression. If a devadasi is able to financially support her family and herself, she can choose not to have a male partner.
But while economic empowerment is a crucial factor, it is not enough to stop the exploitation of women as devadasis. Being a member of a self-help group also socially empowers these women to speak up about their issues. If a girl is likely to be “dedicated,” the group puts a stop to it by reasoning with her parents and finding an alternate solution for her family.
Gender-based violence is also better tackled by a women’s collective rather than a woman on her own. Membership in an SHG enables the women to pull back the curtain and expose and question abuse by their partners.
Religion and culture have glorified devadasis, making the practice acceptable in local communities. Many sex workers call themselves devadasis and get themselves temple dedications to wipe off the stigma of being a commercial sex worker. This trend gives the government the excuse it needs to claim that there are no real devadasis left.
Despite the practice having been banned in India almost 30 years ago, a retired judge has estimated that there are still about 450,000 devadasis in the country. The government has not taken any notice of his report, leaving the oppression of young girls to continue – even become normalized – without any legal or punitive consequences.
Many of the devadasi women who have taken part in our SHGs have overcome the poverty that so often leads their families to dedicate them in the first place. But educational support and vocational training for their children is still needed to prevent the intergenerational perpetuation of poverty.
The devadasi system is not a cultural practice by any stretch of imagination, but a system of child rape, sexual slavery, caste discrimination and gender-based violence. The importance of focused child protection laws to stop this practice cannot be stressed enough. All policymakers, donors and NGOs in the region also need to identify the remaining devadasis and provide them with the means to economically empower themselves, so their daughters will never have to don a necklace that dooms them to a life of exploitation, abuse and neglect.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls.