450,000 DEVADASI IN INDIA
(National Human Rights Commission, 2013)
DEVADASI OR DEVARADIYAR MEANS “SERVANT OF GOD”
12 YEARS OLD: THE AVERAGE AGE WHEN A DEVADASI IS FIRST TAKEN FOR SEX
WHAT IS IT?
The devadasi system is a religious practice in parts of southern and western India, where pre-pubescent girls are dedicated to the goddess Yellamma and are considered “married” to God. They are thus no longer allowed to marry a mortal. However, upon reaching puberty, these girls can be “taken” for sex by patrons who usually provide for her family and any children she bears as well. Due to the devadasi’s religious status, even married men can have sex with them without being considered unfaithful to their wives.
WHY BECOME A DEVADASI?
Many of the devadasi are Dalit, the lowest caste in society. In fact, oftentimes, Dalit families are ostracised from villages due to their caste, and hence remain illiterate and poor. With limited options for income, the system is seen as a means for poverty-stricken parents to unburden themselves of daughters.
Other times, devadasi themselves dedicate their own daughters to become devadasi as well. Sadly, even women as young as 30 are considered old in this profession, and when they fall pregnant, are also less desirable. If a devadasi is abandoned by her patron (which often happens as she gets older), another man can take his place, but when none do, giving their own daughters up can be seen as their only way to survive and gain an income for themselves.
WHY IS THIS A PROBLEM?
Despite the practice being banned since 1988, it is still prevalent in some parts of India, with little to no enforcement of the law. Devadasi are usually illiterate and uneducated, which traps them in a cycle of poverty, dependent on selling sex to survive. In addition, their multiple partners makes them vulnerable to sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. Finally, devadasi are subject to harassment and even sexual violence with little protection under the law.
WHAT IS BEING DONE?
There are efforts made to stop children of devadasis from becoming devadasis themselves through education and teaching them skills for self-sustainability, but these efforts lack funding and are often even opposed by locals who ostracise the devadasi.