On the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, it is high time we talk about the culturally accepted practice of Devdasis
The conversation around sexual violence in India exploded after the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012. However, mainstream attention to sexual violence remains largely limited to instances of brutal sexual assault committed by men who are unknown to the victim-survivor. Reuters estimated that as of January 2020, there are 20 million commercial prostitutes living in India and 16 million of them are female victims of sex trafficking. Child sexual abuse and trafficking of minors in India are deeply worrying issues and combatting them in their various manifestations needs to be a public priority. One such practice marrying child abuse with trafficking is the Devadasi tradition.
“The word ‘Devadasi’ translates to ‘female slave of God’ in Hindi”
The word “Devadasi” translates to “female slave of God” in Hindi. Devadasis can be traced back to the 6th and the 7th century AD. At the initial stage of the practice, Devadasis belonged to upper-class families exclusively. They were married to the deity of Goddess Yellama, they were responsible for the upkeep of the Hindu temple and performed classical dances such as Bharatanatyam during ceremonies and celebrations in the temple. They occupied a high social status in the community and brought prestige to the temples. The practice appears to have denigrated into incorporating sex work from around the 10th Century AD.
“According to the National Human Rights Commission, there were 450,000 Devadasis active in India as of 2013”
The Devadasi system, while officially banned under the law, continues to exist in India. It involves dedicating and marrying girls, often as young as five, six, or ten years of age to the deity of Goddess Yellama. In the modern iteration of the practice, the girls belong exclusively to impoverished Dalit backgrounds. It exists primarily in southern India, in pockets of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh where the devotees of Goddess Yellama have a strong presence. According to the National Human Rights Commission, there were 450,000 Devadasis active in India as of 2013.
“Once the girl reaches puberty, she is sexually initiated into the practice by an upper-caste man. From this time on, she can not refuse to sexually serve any male member of the community”
Once the girl reaches puberty, she is sexually initiated into the practice by an upper-caste man. From this time on, she can not refuse to sexually serve any male member of the community. When the girl is not considered young anymore, around the time she reaches the age of thirty, she is discarded by the practice. The custom does not permit her to marry and restricts her avenues for earning a living to begging, manual labour, and largely sporadic maintenance from sexual partners.
“There are various reasons for families to dedicate girls to the practice and families wishing for divine providence from the Goddess is one of them”
There are various reasons for families to dedicate girls to the practice and families wishing for divine providence from the Goddess is one of them. Girls who’re recognised with copper coloured hair or matting in their hair are sometimes considered divinely marked for the practice. In reality, these are usually traits of malnutrition. A prevailing reason for families to dedicate girls is poverty and lack of any other means for the family to survive and provide for the girl and her other siblings. Upper-caste men have been known to bribe temple priests to convince the families to dedicate the girls they find attractive.
Because Devadasis are not allowed to get married, their children occupy an illegitimate status in society and are marginalised because of it. Their children are extremely vulnerable to commercial and non-commercial sexual exploitation. For their survival, Devadasis end up dedicating their daughters to the practice, which makes the practice matrilineal. Research with Devadasis found that they exhibited signs of psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder and hallucinations due to stress.
“Devadasis are extremely vulnerable to being trafficked into commercial prostitution and are often found in brothels in Mumbai or North India”
The relationship between sex work and Devadasis is deep. The practice today is worryingly linked to trafficking for commercial purposes. While the Devadasi institution exists in specific states, the problem in pan-India. Devadasis are extremely vulnerable to being trafficked into commercial prostitution and are often found in brothels in Mumbai, North India and elsewhere. Several factors lead to commercial trafficking of Devadasis and these include abject poverty, lack of occupational opportunities and poor social status, and being pimped out by their sexual partners.
“The combined forces of religion, caste, and economic deprivation continue to sanction it. The nature of the practice leaves no room for the girl to have any agency over her life”
Legally, the practice has long been banned. The Indian government outlawed the practice in 1924 and since then, individual states have passed prohibitions to combat its existence in areas where it continues to thrive. But, as demonstrated by high figures, the practice persists to the present day due to poor law enforcement and its deep cultural roots. The combined forces of religion, caste, and economic deprivation continue to sanction it. The nature of the practice leaves no room for the girl to have any agency over her life. Before her dedication, the girl’s family negotiate her price with the temple authorities. From this point, to all the sexual encounters that she is forced into, her consent is not regarded. Devadasis suffer through extreme trauma and receive no state support, owing largely to the underground nature of the practice.
“The plight of Devadasis has slipped through the cracks and has received little mainstream attention, even within feminist movements”
The plight of Devadasis has slipped through the cracks and has received little mainstream attention, even within feminist movements. The reasons for this include a lack of representation in news and decision-making roles. The conversation around trafficking in India is incomplete without talking about Devadasis and the myriad factors that strip them off any agency over all major life decisions.
“The realities of girls trafficked as Devadasis into commercial and non-commercial sex work must be recognised. It is possible to end this practice, but it will require a conscious commitment and effort from all of us”
There are many ways in which those not affected by this practice can help. First, educating ourselves and sharing the stories of Devadasis and the horrors of this practice will help generate attention. Second, supporting the ground-level organisations that work with Devadasis in different capacities, financially and if possible, on the ground, is extremely crucial and can make a transformative impact. Charities doing valuable work with Devadasis include MASS and the Sakhi Trust. Third, lobbying lawmakers and local elected officials to enforce anti-Devadasi laws will help move towards systemic change. This can be done through emails, letters, phone calls, petitions, and social media interactions. This is not an exhaustive list and there is a long way to go in securing basic human rights for victim-survivors of the Devadasi practice.
At present, there are hundreds of thousands of little girls vulnerable to life-long exploitation as Devadasis in India. The existence of this system condemns the Dalit girls pushed into it to a life of sexual slavery with no recourse or agency. It is worth noting that their living conditions are likely to have been worsened by the ongoing pandemic. The Devadasi system is an anachronism that continues to thrive due to the sanctions given by religion, culture and caste. The realities of girls trafficked as Devadasis into commercial and non-commercial sex work must be recognised. It is possible to end this horrific practice, but it will require a conscious commitment and effort from all of us.
Asmita, Deputy Editor of Bol Magazine, is currently pursuing an MA in Woman and Child Abuse programme. She also runs the Talking Research Podcast.
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