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The building of a wall of solidarity in resistance against trafficking of women and children across the world for prostitution and as sex slaves stands out as living irony when placed against the backdrop of the persistent presence of the Devadasi system in India and other socially practiced commercial abuse of the girl-child within the family that absorbs prostitution of the girl-child instead of educating her for a better life or getting her married to lead a normal life within the mainstream.
In Upper Sindh, in times of scarcity and in times of plenty, Balochis sell their little girls.
Herders come from far away lands, loaded with sheep and buy girls and leave some sheep behind, and go back into the hills. Nomadic Pathans come down buy girls, or leave them behind, and vanish into the hills. Girls from rural Punjab flee southwards, to Sindh to escape from the vicious contracts through which their lives are pledged. Local Sindhis exchange women and girls across and through generations, pledging even future girls which will be born. Women build their houses, and repair their fallen roofs, after selling their girls. Vast trading networks of girls take place everyday and all the time. Girls are trafficked across provinces and borders, sometimes taken as far out as Quetta, Loralai, Kandahar, or brought from here to there. This vast and intense trafficking in girls takes place across the length and breadth of Pakistan with the complicity of the family, tribe and implicitly, by the State. A girl child sees her
life pledged, negotiated, bartered, sold, long before she knows who she is, and sometimes years before she is born.
The Government of Bangladesh, stated penalty for kidnapping or abduction of women promulgated by the Cruelty to Women (Deterrent Punishment) Ordinance in 1983. The punishment was transportation for life or rigorous imprisonment for a term that may extend to 14 years. The parliament bill (Bangladesh) passed in 1995 for acts of violence against women and a child penalizes trafficking with death sentence. Similar national laws are there in other SAARC countries. But these are as valuable as the paper they are printed on because they have not brought about any decline in trafficking of women and children from these countries. Police records reveal specific cases of trafficking since 1979. As per an estimate of Human Rights organizations in Pakistan where most of the trafficked women are sold, about 1500 Bengali women in jail and about 200,000 women and children are involved in the slave trade.
The Devadasi system is still prevalent in India. It is known by different names in different places such as Devarattiyal in Tamil Nadu, Mahris in Kerala, Natis in Assam, Muralis in Maharashtra, Basavis and Muralis in Andhra Pradesh and Jogatis and Basavis in Karnataka. The word “devadasi” is derived from two words, “deva” meaning God and “dasi” meaning slave or servant-woman. Every devadasi therefore, is a slave of God. However, according to Dr. I.S. Gilada of the Indian Health Organization of Mumbai, the word “devadasi” today has been reduced to a euphemism for its raw equivalent, “prostitute.” But they escape being strictly covered by the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act because they function by the sanction of blind superstition and religious beliefs rather than on the basis of economic gain. Today, the devadasi system has evolved into open prostitution in all other Indian States except in a few pockets where it still flourishes under the guise of ‘dedication to Yellamma.’ In Karnataka and in some parts of the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, the system continues whereby trafficking is induced and implemented by the immediate family of the girl.
The custom of dedicating girls to Yellamma and to the temples of the Goddess is traced back to the 3rd Century A.D. during the period of the Puranas. Inscriptions dating back to 1004 A.D. on the Raja Rajeshwar temple at Tanjore in the south maintain that there were 400 devadasis in the temple who were second in importance only to the temple priests who performed the religious rituals. The Someshwar shrine at Gujarat maintained 500 devadasis.

Pune came under the rule of Shahaji Bhonsale in the 17th century. By 1818, devadasis had deteriorated to prostituting themselves for money. The British rule brought about a slow and steady decline in local royalty and temple treasuries. With the rise in British power, the first to be financially and socially victimized were the devadasis. Gone was the respect they enjoyed as members of a class next only to the priests. Devadasis remained entertainers but their entertainment now was through their bodies. They evolved into practicing courtesans skilled in the art of love-making. The system spread across (a) Belgaum, Gulbarga and Bellary districts in Karnataka, and (b) Satara, Kolhapur, Solapur and Osmanabad districts of Maharashtra, both in the Western regions of India.

Today, the dividing line between a commercial prostitute and devadasi-turned prostitute is so blurred that you cannot distinguish the one from the other. But their origins are different. In commercial prostitution, one is not necessarily born into prostitution but is either driven to it or steps into it by choice. But in the devadasi system, the profession is decided for the female child much before she is aware of its implications. Her parents and family members initiate them into the trade. Commercial prostitution does not have any religious or social sanction. But the devdasis system is sustained through these two very institutions – religion and society.

Dr.I.S. Gilada, “Any girl from these areas belonging to the community of Harijans can be dedicated to Yellamma under any pretext. She has a white patch on her skin. Due to ignorance and superstition, this is interpreted to as a sign that she be dedicated to Yellamma. Sometimes, girls develop a thatch of matted hair for want of regular washing and combing. She too, is married to Yellamma to be converted into a devadasi. They believe that if they fail to follow the ‘sign’ of Yellamma, the entire family will fall in the wrath of the Goddess whose fury will destroy them all. A simple boil that does not heal because proper medication has not been taken is taken to be a signal that Yellamma wants the girl for herself.” Sometimes, a girl is dedicated to Yellamma just because another devadasi, supposedly in a trance, vaguely pointed out in the direction of the girl and said that Yellamma wanted that girl. Married women between 20 and 25 are also sometimes dedicated to Yellamma under similar pretexts. He adds that devdasis account for 25 per cent of the total number of prostitutes in India. Vivekananda Manawade differs from the data offered by IHO. Till this day, about 1000 young girls are dedicated to Yellamma on Magha Purnima night at Saundatti. This is the biggest festival of the year in areas where the Goddess to become a devadasi, alias a prostitute thereafter.

Devadasis cannot be brought under the purview of the Suppression of Immoral Traffic (in women and girls) Amendment Bill 1986 because other than devadasis who live in the regular brothels of Indian cities, devadasis do not admit to practicing prostitution because their entire functioning is based on their blind trust and devotion to Yellamma. The practice exists because it is socially sanctioned. The sanction is based on ignorant and irrational belief in religion and superstition. The central government passed the Prevention of Devadasis Act in 1935. This did not bring about the slightest change in the status quo of the practice in Karnataka and Maharashtra. The Janata Government of Karnataka succeeded in passing legislation banning the devdasis cult, with Karnataka Devadasis Samarpan Nishedhan Act 1982 that took effect from January 1984. Many years later, dedications continue.

Social changes cannot be brought about through law alone. At Manoli, 12 kms from Saundatti, some devadasis are being trained to handle sewing machines at a centre run by the Akhmahadevi Mahila Mandal. This voluntary body trains 40 girls at a time for six months. The Mahatma Phule Samata Pratisthan of Pune is trying to educate children of devadasis to that they can find employment in the mainstream. Revabai Kamble is President of the Pune Devadasi Sangathan founded in 1982. It raises health consciousness among prostitutes who visit the dispensary once a week. The Social Welfare Department of the Government of Maharashtra has set up a hostel for children of devadasis at Bhukam, 12 miles away from Pune. It has room for 75 inmates at a time but corruption is reportedly rampant and facilities are inadequate. Sawali at Nippani has Sushila Naik as president, who is a devadasi herself. It is a centre established solely for the rehabilitation of the devadasis and for deserted and displaced women. The Karnataka Dalit Action Committee based in Bangalore has constantly tried to raise public support against the degrading system. This organization forced the Karnataka Legislative Assembly to pass the 1982 Act mentioned above.

The Vaibhav Mitra Mandal of Pune has helped established the Renuka-Vaibhav Devadasis’ Urban Co-operative Credit Society run by devadasis for devadasis. This is the first of its kind in the country. It provides loans ranging from $10.00 to $100.00 to its members during times of crisis. The Mandal had a membership of around 5000. They do not have to offer mortgage or security against loans and interest charged is minimal compared with rates charged by private moneylenders. The Mandal, runs a hostel in Kondhwa village along with another charitable trust for 100 children of devadasis. Lodging and boarding facilities are free. The Karnataka Social Welfare Board jointly with the Christian Children’s Fund (CCF) based in the USA, has adopted20 villages in Athani Taluka with a target to cover 600 children of devadasis.

But these efforts have failed to augur change. Most of these women are caught in the debt-traps of pimps, agents and touts. Others say they cannot wait for projects to come through because by then, their children would starve to death. A third group of women are so set in their lifestyle that prostitution seems an easier way of earning a living than knitting or weaving baskets.
Monday, March 02, 2009

Every year, an average of 22,480 women and 44,476 children are reported missing in India. Out of these, every year, an average of 5,452 women and 11,008 children are not traced. A recent report, Action Research on Trafficking in Women and Children in India - 2002-2003 indicates that many of the missing persons are not really missing but are instead trafficked.


aliĝngix's picture

Thanks for sharing...

This information sheds light in a world everyone likes to keep quite or is "inappropriate"(unpleasant?) to talk about. I did not know all of this, or that is how it is now for many woman...
"The trap" of being an object instead of a human is like young marriage over here, and media portrayal in America. Expect it is so much severe in other countries, or at least, they like the public to believe... Thanks for pulling the corner of the cover of trafficking. It is so much deeper than that, eh? With many holes and tunnels to be explored.
Thanks for sharing.

enDhruva's picture

Thank you for this information

It is very interesting that I saw your post today. I just watched a movie called Taken with the actor Liam Neeson. It was about female trafficking based in Paris. I was sickened as it is something I don't hear about and didn't understand how far reaching it is. It has been weighing on my mind ever since. And then here is your post, outlining this relatively same situation in India. I feel deeply for these poor girls and yet don't quite know how to stop it all. Information is always a good starting point though.

Thank you again for your piece.


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