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Conundrum of a Devadasi Rehabilitation Activist

Mahima Meenaxi
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Devadasi system, prevalent in the Southern Indian states, is a cruel system of marrying underage girls from marginalised communities to deities, Hindu priests of temples or objects of worship. This system is a form of modern day slavery and is popularly known to be “sacred prostitution”. The girl so married is forbidden from marrying any other mortal man and is perceived as duty bound to satisfy sexual urges of men of higher social status. In 2011, the National Commission for Women estimated that there were 48,358 Devadasis in India. However, a 2015 Report by Sampark submitted to the International Labour Organisation (“Sampark Report”) estimates that the number of Devadasis all over India would be close to 4,50,000 (sources as cited). This interview with Ms. Maalamma, who has been actively fighting the Devdasi System, gives us a sneak peek into the problem.

Maalamma was born and brought up in Beylal, a village in Karnataka’s Bellary District. She is the General Secretary of the Devadasi Mahila Vimochana Sangha and a Member of All India Democratic Women’s Association. Both of these organisations focus on development of women in rural areas. When asked about what motivated her to fight the system, she responded that it springs from the real life stories of thousands of women subject to the Devadasi System.

How do women become subject to the Devadasi System?

The system has its roots in the age old oppressive tradition of “muththu kattodhu” which translates to “tying of pearls”. The tradition entails the tying of pearls on the bodies of girls before they attain puberty. Once the pearls are tied, it signifies that the girl is engaged to the God (in effect the Priest) of a particular temple in the locality. Another tradition is the practice of throwing coloured water on girls during the community festivities of Ugadi (the local New Year) or Holi. It signifies that the girls are welcome to be Devadasis.

When the IF Magazine’s team inquired on what would happen if these girls rejected being a Devdasi after such traditions have been imposed on them, Maalamma recalled an incident from1984, where the huts of 3 Devadasi women were burnt as they had refused to partake in the system anymore. She recalls that there were large scale protests against this incident under the leadership of one Mr. Basavaraj.

Another incident she narrated was that of a Head Priest of a village, who put forth in the Gram Panchayat that he had a vision that subjecting 2 minor girls to Devadasi system would bring welfare to the village. The Head Priest’s suggestion was taken into account and the 2 minor girls were subject to the Devadasi system.

What are the problems faced by people like yourself in organising women to fight against the system?

Maalamma states that individual caste identities of the women are a huge factor which impacts the fight against the system. Most women who are Devadasis are Dalit women. Merging Dalit women’s problems with non-Dalit women’s problems in order to organise them together has multiple issues. Firstly, the problems faced by the non-Dalit women in rural areas are related to dowry and harassment, which are massively different from that of the Dalit Devadasi women. Dalit women have been fighting for the recognition of their rights, the rights of their bastardised children amongst others. Secondly, the non-Dalit women do not want to be seen as organising or standing up for the Dalit Devadasi women due to the social stigma attached to people associated with Devadasi women. Maalamma recalls instances where non-Dalit women refused to sit with Dalit Devadasi women in gatherings organised by activists to bring about socio-legal awareness amongst rural women. This caste divide is the major impediment.

Do the laws protecting women against the Devadasi system help them?

The laws that protect women against the Devadasi system in India are framed by the State Legislatures and are thereby slightly different in application from one state to another. But the common factor among the Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Acts is that these Acts are framed to penalise the dedication of girls and women as Devadasis rather than empowering them. Empowered women are comparatively less vulnerable to such exploitation. The Act penalises anyone who abets or partakes in the dedication of women as Devadasi to temples. The penalty is even higher when the abettor is a family member of the girl subjected to the Devadasi system, or the girl herself.

What the law fails to realise is that Devadasis do not become subject to the system because they choose it but because their socio-economic status does not allow them an alternative or a choice. Most Devadasis’ mothers and grandmothers have also been Devadasis. The marginalisation of the segment of women who are generationally underprivileged is important and the law fails to realise it. Instead of enabling the women by giving them alternate job security, it prohibits and penalises the victims of generations of marginalisation.

“Another aspect that the law fails to realise is the active involvement of the upper caste men (Priests and Feudalists). These upper caste men exploit the Devadasi women the most and are the main beneficiaries of the entire system. The Act provides a minor fine for these men who are in essence the culprits who endorse the system”, opines Maalamma.

What are the Devadasi Rehabilitation Activists fighting for?

Maalamma states that the Devadasi Rehabilitation Activists are fighting for the following issues:

1. Abandonment of Children

One of the system’s gravest consequences is the abandonment of children. The Devadasi System leads to a large number of children being abandoned, not just by their biological fathers but also by their mothers. She recalls that in the initial years of her activism, she could not bear the sight of children not being enrolled in good schools owing to the fact that they were not allowed to enrol in schools without knowing their parents’ names. This is not just an issue of documentation alone, rather one that has a larger social stigma attached to it. These children, who finally make it to schools in the locality, drop out due to bullying or harassment from their peers.

  1. Property Rights

Owing to the bastardisation and abandonment of children, the Devadasis and their children lack property rights. Despite being the biological child of an upper caste man, he/she does not have access to the nourishment and property inheritance as that of a child born out of a socially recognised union such as marriage.

  1. Pension and Job Security

Since the Devadasi system is essentially a form of prostitution, the Devadasis are considered worthless in old age and are denied obtaining of pensions/retirement benefits. Though the National Commission of Women has come up with several schemes to provide pensions for these women, the beneficiaries are not as many owing to improper allocation of funds and collection of data regarding the actual number of devadasis in the particular area.

  1. Protection for migrants

Another problem that the law fails to recognise is that some women who cease to become a part of the system are eventually pushed out of their villages owing to social stigma. They are not offered new jobs because of their past association to the system. Hence, they are forced to migrate to nearby towns/cities in search of new jobs, with a hope that their past identities will be erased. Such migration calls for rehabilitation facilities and protection from the Government.

  1. Right to Health and accessible Healthcare

The Rehabilitation of the Devadasis is impossible without ensuring that they are physically and emotionally healthy. Therefore, the right to health and accessible healthcare is another everyday need of Devadasis that we, as a society, are ignoring.

Maalamma truly believes that empowerment of Devadasi women is only possible on the recognition of their needs which springs from grassroots level activism. The struggles that one faces during the indulgence of such grassroots level activism is innumerable. Despite such struggles, she is hopeful that the emancipation of Devadasi women from feudalistic cuffs is not a distant dream if laws, policies and grassroots level activism work hand in hand.

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