Monday, December 3, 2012

Devadasi system- The curse for being a woman

Womanhood is the most beautiful thing that can happen to any girl. It is a phase in which she blossoms into a mature and a confident individual. Womanhood turns a girl into a lady. It is the cruellest punishment for a girl to deny her womanhood and turn her into a sex slave by calling her the servant of God-the Devadasi. A young girl is picked out either through lineage or through her dancing skills or more blindly through her physical appearance to become a devadasi. In the absence of a perceivable God, the mighty men assume that stature. And that young girl becomes the servant of those few men. James Hastings and Clarke Edinburg in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, point out that the most heinous of slavery is the sexual slavery in guise of religious freedom. In the name of God, these women tend to brutal men and their desires, who twist the rules of the system at their will. Largely prevalent in the peninsular region of India, the system is a blot on Hinduism as it originated out of it. It stands as a perfect example of the misinterpretation of religion. The Karnataka state which had the highest number of devadasis in the 1980’s banned the system as a punishable offence in 1982.  The state of Andhra Pradesh followed in 1986. According to the latest National Commission for Women (NCW) report there are 22,944 Devadasis identified in Karnataka alone, even after 30 years of implementing the ban on the system. It was Mallamma Yalawar who stood against the system through her organisation Sabala (which means to empower), at an age when most of her peers preferred watching cinema or spending time in the park. She was 24 when she started.

The draconian system and its origin:

The earliest reference to Devadasi system is found in Kalidasa’s Meghadootam. Mainly associated with singing, dancing and maintaining the temple chores, the Devadasis came to be exploited after the Muslim invaders from the north western borders destroyed the temple culture. Down south, the Cholas encouraged the system of Devadasis. Over a period of time, it grew and the local village headman was in charge instead of the King. He utilised the system for his personal needs and the status quo stuck. The poor woman in the village who having been denied educational and financial independence since ages never really got to understand the change in stance. Traditionally men always enjoyed upper strata in society who denied women their due and nobody bothered about the imperfect system. But nature throws up people of grit, to fight and change things which are imperfect.

Fresh from her start of Sabala, Mallamma was looking for women’s causes that she can relate to and can give her best. There were many areas in which women were neglected and had to be empowered. The devadasi system was the cruellest and it got her immediate attention. She decided to work for it. The district of Bijapur in the northern part of Karnataka was identified to be one of the worst affected districts that had large uneducated women practising the illegal system. She chose Indi taluqa (Block headquarters). The women had psychologically accepted the practice and their destiny when she first met them. She did not have a big team, nor did she appear like a government officer. That made the women highly suspicious of her. It was 1988 and her first visit to a Devadasi home did not yield much result. But fighters don’t lose in the first round.

She went back to study the real problems that were affecting the devadasi women other than their physical abuse. She learnt that the case of physical abuse was not very strong because by now the devadasis had started charging money for sex, which made the rich men less guilty. A thorough study of the devadasis brought the real horrifying problem to the fore. The children of the devadasis most often get abandoned by their mothers mainly due to the guilt of not knowing who their father is. And due to the utter poverty that they lead their lives in, they could not afford a child to up-bring  These children most often have low self esteem, view the society as their enemy and take to anti social activities. This problem seemed larger than the original one. Mallamma was in need of a team who could help her in the execution of her plans. Not many people were willing to work for such a cause. Most of the women in the devadasi community were from the scheduled castes. This made other women to step back since it was viewed as a sin to talk or engage with a person below ones caste. Fortunately a lady from Ranebennur (a town in Haveri district of Karnataka), named Savita joined her and they decided to take the problem head on.

The brave work through fear and tread through difficulties

To gain initial acceptance, Mallamma and Savita first helped the women with money that they could use for medicines and their daily needs. They began making more field trips and convincing women that they deserve a better life and have a better future. That hardly convinced them since being a devadasi provided them a market to sell their bodies and earn money. That was the only means to life they knew and could understand. Sensing a dead end here, Mallamma and  Savita worked on integrating the devadasi children who were treated below par and were neglected. They engaged with the children aged 10-15. The girls went back to their mother’s profession either by choice or by force. The boys did menial jobs and got addicted to drugs and alcohol. On interacting with them, a startling truth, having gone ignored all these years was exposed. The children had to drop out of school for not having their father’s names clearly known. A child had to register its father’s name during admission. If there was no clarity on father’s name, most schools even the ones which were state run refused admission. Their mothers simply could not tell their children who their father is, with certainty.

Mallamma was dumbstruck at the rule of law. The father's name shouldn't become an impediment in the child's education, she thought. To get the mother’s name included in the admission forms for schools, she did a massive state level campaign and approached a dozen other organisations working in the same field to get ideas. She took it up till the state secretariat (the Vidhana Soudha) in Karnataka. Finally after years of struggle she created a consortium of NGOs and submitted a memorandum to the then women and child development minister of Karnataka Smt. Leeladevi Prasad. The minister responded to the call quickly and got state cabinet approval for having to include the mother’s name in the school admission forms. That was a massive success for her efforts.

A group of Devadasi women at a SHG session
Picture courtesy: Google Images.

The introduction of the mother’s name in admission forms gave a huge boost in the enrolment of Devadasi children in elementary schools. Sabala encouraged the Devadasis to file their first customer’s name as the father’s name for their children. This awareness made them more potent in facing threats by the local muscle men who till now dictated terms. More children began to get associated with their mothers and talking to them about health and hygiene. They started to implement what was taught to them in their schools and made their often illiterate mothers know about their learning. In a way, for the devadasis their children became their teachers. That was their resurrection.

Self Help Groups (SHGs) and community centres were formed in order for local devadasi women to interact and talk to Sabala on a common platform. This made the village strong men to take notice and object to Mallamma's work. Every year the men in the village bring in a new girl and dedicate her to the system. Savita came to know of it and ventured there alone without informing Mallamma. They both had done ample amount of independent field trips by now. So Savita went there confidently and wanted to do some talking with the village headman who had masterminded the dedication ceremony. But she was in for a shock when she went to the village. The Sarpanch asked his men to take her away and lock her in a house until everything gets done. There were no ubiquitous mobile phones, no means to communicate. She had to stay locked up for 1 whole day. She was released after the innocent girl was taken away as a devadasi. She returned and narrated the entire story to Mallamma. The next thing she knew- Mallamma was in the office of the Superintendent of Police, Bijapur. She gave a complaint and asked for police cover to her employees. That made her popular in the local media. The police promptly did its job and arrested the village Sarpach. This made her and the organisation to be feared by the local goondas and to be respected by the helpless Devadasis.

Dealing with the HIV AIDS monster

In the early 1990’s, the dreaded HIV AIDS was at its peak in India. Mainly due to lack of awareness and unsafe sexual practices, it was estimated that by the end of the century there will be 10 crore AIDS patients in India. Karnataka was at a focal point because the state had reported highest number of cases in the country. Juvenile HIV AIDS was among the rise. The children were being abandoned by the society due to the fear associated with the disease. People were under an impression that it was an air borne disease. Lot of misconceptions surrounded the general public. Sabala was at the forefront again fighting, lending its complete support to the state government in creating awareness among the public. The cause was attributed to the Devadasis in the region who mostly followed unhealthy sexual practices, often under the influence of alcohol. Sabala worked for the cause and created awareness. They spoke about their future, the future for their own children and planted a seed of hope in those women who had lived in a drought of faith.

The objective of an NGO is to fill the gap between the government and the people and to see to it that the government’s welfare schemes reach the right audience. In an era where negativity has filled all our prime time news and despair our morning newspapers, I thought remembering the work of Sabala on AIDS day would prove to be the right refresher for all of us. If we as a country have made December 1 to be less scary, the tribute goes to organisations like Sabala who went out there and played their part to perfection.

For all of us eating pop corn on the couch- Happy AIDS Day!

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