March 7th, 2014

International Women’s Day: Remember the Devadasi

On the 8th March 2014, women worldwide come together to celebrate International Women’s Day, promoting women’s rights and equality. Women’s empowerment is crucial as it has potential to mobilise up to half of the population! HART strives to promote gender equality, with numerous projects worldwide focusing on women’s issues. One such scheme is Operation Mercy India who partners HART to work with one of the most disempowered groups across India – the Devadasi.

The Devadasi are girls and women who are trapped into a system of ritualised prostitution, masked under the pretence of religion, and forced to dedicate their lives to the fertility goddess, Yellamma. The Devadasi ritual was outlawed 1988 yet sadly it remains a common practice, with punitive measures for those who take part virtually non-existent. The majority of Devadasi are unaware of their rights and many don’t even know that it is outlawed. There are an estimated 250,000 Devadasi in India although this number could be higher, as its illegal status results in many presentations or rituals being carried out in secret. Therefore the first step to end the plight of the Devadasi is their identification.

Daughters are presented to temples due to their families living in such acute poverty that it is the only way to provide for them. When Devadasi, sometime as young as 7, are first presented, they are too young to understand the implications and enjoy dressing up with bangles and flowers. Upon reaching puberty, their virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder and they can subsequently be expected to ‘service’ up to 20 men a day. This inevitably leads to problems such as HIV/AIDS, pregnancy and abuse. They are trapped into this cycle of exploitation and abuse, often due to dependant family members. Once Devadasi contract a sexually transmitted disease or are considered too old, they are cast from the temple, usually with a future of prostitution in store.

The plight of the Devadasi includes discrimination, exploitation, oppression and acute poverty, not to mention physical and mental health risks. There is minimal family support as they are forbidden to marry, and the prospects of their children are often severely limited. In India a strong emphasis placed on the father means the children cannot marry and are often trapped in a life of poverty and exploitation. Devadasi daughters usually follow in their mother’s footsteps and are forced into Devadasi system as there is no other way for the mother to provide for the child. These children often have poor health or a secondary sexually transmitted disease that has been passed on from the mother.

The work of HART’s partners, Operation Mercy India (OMI) with the Devadasi is vital in providing these women with access to healthcare, education and security to support themselves and enabling them to give their children a better future. Their pioneering projects work to support the Devadasi and break the cycle of exploitation. OMI provides Devadasi and their children with education, counselling support and medical care. A school provides education specifically for Devadasi children, allowing them to create a brighter future of stability, often training for future careers in nursing or teaching. Education for the Devadasi  themselves includes schemes that teach trade, crafts, hygiene, nutrition so they no longer need to resort to prostitution as a source of income. Courses in basic agriculture are not uncommon and allow Devadasi families to become self-sufficient.

As well as the work with the Devadasi, HART continues its anti-slavery and anti-trafficking advocacy and campaigns. Baroness Cox has recently updated her book – ‘This Immoral Trade: Slavery in the 21st Century’ to include the recent work undertaken with the Devadasi women of Belgaum, Karnakata State. This includes many stories that have been reported and the understanding of the plight of these women.

This International Women’s Day, help us to continue our support of the Devadasi and other exploited women by sharing this article with friends and family, and spreading the good work of OMI and other HART partners dedicated to empowering women worldwide.  Further information is available on the HART website detailing other HART projects that are focussed on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Let’s work together to make the future for females all over the world bright, safe and rewarding.

For more information on International Women’s Day, visit: http://www.internationalwomensday.com

Elizabeth Stanton

By Elizabeth Stanton

Elizabeth is currently interning at HART for three months having recently graduated from Durham University where she studied Physical Geography. Her interests include women’s empowerment and the relationship between environmental processes and development.

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