Working Women's Forum
Dec. 1998


                     -Victims of a degenerated culture-

The gruesome story of the Devadasi system is nothing but a blatant
violation of the human rights of the girl child to survive and have a
normal, healthy childhood. Despite its visible presence as a system in
violating every possible convention and code of the most basic rights of
women and girl children, the state and central legal provisions do very
little to address this grave issue. As early as 1936, in the then
undivided Madras presidency, it is the persistence of a dynamic social
worker that had brought in a Devadasi Abolition Act in the upper house of
the then Madras legislature. But contrarily in the other states, it is
widely prevalent even today as a profession which has the sanction of
religion and culture, seldom considering it as a violation of human

The Kudithini village of Bellary district is a glaring example of how the
girl children are being initiated into the process of becoming Devadasis
(sex workers) even before they attain puberty. Economic compulsions and
traditional beliefs are the two main reasons for such a practice
especially when the area suffers in famine, drought and epidemics, to
appease gods and goddesses. In a brief ceremony conducted at the temple of
the local goddess 'Huligamma' near Bellary town, the girl goes through the
process of getting married to the deity. After that it is an abusive cycle
that continues for the rest of her life and a bond that forbids her to
marry anyone else. 

    After 3 weeks of the dedication ceremony, the girl is entrusted to the
care of her maternal uncle who would be the first among the series of
abusers who would exploit, oppress and leave her with no option to lead a
life of dignity and more importantly one of her choice. The victimization
and exploitation continue through several clients who would be local
landlords, men from the same and neighbouring villages, truck drivers and
so on. Thus, in this community, the girl children are assets, as the
responsibility of providing for the family rests on the eldest daughter
who is dedicated to the goddess "Huligamma". Besides obliging her
clientele, she is often entrusted with the responsibility of taking care
of handicapped/disabled or elders at home. For instance, Lakshmi, a 10
year old girl , being totally blind, was dedicated to become a Devadasi
last year and now she has to take care of her entire family of seven

   Now, that the system has been accepted by the women almost as a way of
life, neither do they feel hesitant to talk about it nor do they feel
outraged. However, those who have challenged it have also only ended up
being condemned by the community. In the case of Chatramma, whose daughter
has married a man from the neighbouring village, the mother feels her
daughter has betrayed her by not carrying on the Devadasi tradition and
has hence disowned her. 

It is a distressing reality that families of Devadasis lead a hand to
mouth existence and live under conditions of extreme poverty and squalor.
Most children look underfed and malnourished. They live in thatched houses
that are leaky and in bad shape, requiring immediate repairs.  Being women
who have multiple sexual partners consciousness/awareness on issues of
personal/menstrual hygiene is very low. Consequently, most of the women
(almost 75%) suffer from problems of reproductive tract infections and
sexually transmitted diseases. The women perceive any such problem as a
normal feature of their life cycle and never take their health concerns

As 100% of the deliveries are domiciliary sometimes attended to by
trained/ untrained midwives or taken care of by the older women in the
community, abortions and still births are alarmingly frequent. It is even
reported that 78% of women go through frequent abortions or give birth to
physically/ mentally handicapped children. Further, when such handicapped
children are born they go through the same vicious cycle as they too are
dedicated to the goddess. 

Frequent pregnancies, abortions and deliveries render majority of the
Devadasi women physically weak and anaemic. Contraceptive measures are
strictly a taboo and even a mere mention evokes a strong negative response
from all the women. Unwanted pregnancies are subjected to crude methods of
induced abortions. The most common practice is to insert a stick coated
with oleander milk into the uterus of the pregnant woman. The effect that
it could have on her reproductive health is not given any consideration. 

It is heard that the government is also rehabilitating the Devadasis and
their children in special schools. It is perceived among their own
children that this practice is only further isolating and segregating them
from other children.  Similarly the mass weddings that have been promoted
in an ad hoc fashion instead of providing the victimized women security
and dignity, encourages unscrupulous elements to marry these women and
trade them off to the brothels in Bombay. 

    Therefore, such rehabilitation programmes aiming merely to quantify
its results in terms of numbers of women rehabilitated, do only more harm
than good. The need of the hour is for a sensitive and humane approach in
which the participation of the women themselves is voluntary and

    The process of weaning women away from this age old practice of
Devadasi system as a way of life, is a difficult and arduous task to say
the least, but with strong persuasion an alternate employment options can
make them deviate from their current way of life. This has been largely
successful in areas like Babuji Nagar of Bellary where a considerable
number of Devadasi women have given up their profession, availed micro
loans from the Working Women's Forum (India) and are today engaged in
hawking, vending and tailoring, leading a life of dignity and respect. 

    As far as the other villages like Kudithini are concerned the task of
WWF has been far more difficult as the entire village comprises of
Devadasi community and the practice has become a convention and a way of
life, with the women merely conforming to it. The realization that it
would require something far more than mere credit delivery to make a dent
in to the situation has motivated WWF to initiate its Reproductive and
Child Health program in these parts for addressing the health concerns of
the Devadasis. This strategy of a comprehensive approach of addressing the
multifarious needs of the community by delivering credit & health services
as a combination is expected to create better awareness and attitudinal
change among the women. 

Simultaneously, the counselling and advocacy program of WWF will work
towards changing existent attitudes and mindsets of the community. While
the struggle ahead is no doubt a challenging one, some dent has already
been made by WWF in the areas where rehabilitated Devadasi women are
educating their daughters today. This is a very positive trend for the
future as the second generation is being saved of the misery and indignity
of sexual abuse. It is for the government and for the communities to come
together and realize that this is a grave human rights violation to deny
and deprive women even their most basic right to control their own minds
and bodies. 

        Case study of 45 Year Old Uligammal

"Being the first born among twelve children in my family, I was dedicated
to Huligamma (local goddess). I was ten years old and was forced to have
sex with my uncle after which other men started frequenting. My earnings
were crucial for my 14 member family.... although I have four children, I
know that my two sons will be of no use to me in old age, that is why I
have dedicated my eldest daughter to Huligamma. She and her children live
with me. We cannot give up this work even if we want to, as the survival
of our children and families depends on it. Some of the men who visit us,
have severe venereal diseases but they do not tell us. We suffer from
several reproductive health problems". 

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