A leading women’s rights activist tells the story of a young girl fighting the devadasi practice that enslaves girls of vulnerable communities into the flesh trade, either through direct dedications or false marriages.
I did a study of the devadasis in 1981 that led to the Karnataka government introducing a law prohibiting the practice. But after so many decades the devadasi practice continues in some pockets, much to the deprivation of girl children. And their life is one of stigma and discrimination.
Young Girl Fights Devadasi Tradition
Radha, a tribal girl in her final year of school, summed up what it is like to be a girl born to a devadasi mother, “People refer to my devadasi background – it is a stigma, as I don’t know who my father is.”
Since times immemorial, the devadasi practice has flourished in different parts of India.
In earlier times the devadasis had a social standing as they served the royalty and the religious priests and led a life of comfort as they were recognised and respected for their artistic talents. They were singers and dancers, who also performed and were entrusted with the care of temple deities.
But with changing times, the practice degenerated and reached a stage where it has become a supply chain to feed the red light areas.
This is especially true of Kamatipura and Foras Road in Mumbai since the practice still continues in Karnataka and Maharashtra.
An averted devadasi dedication
Radha’s mother and grandmother are devadasis. Both of them receive the devadasi pension as part of the Karnataka government’s rehabilitation measures. They will soon get a loan of Rs 1 lakh to start something as a means of income.
Radha’s mother was keen to dedicate Radha as a devadasi too. But an initiative from a civil society organization (CSO) reached out to the family and convinced them to allow Radha to be a member of their Kishori Group (KG) – a village support group that helped Radha become aware of the ills of the devadasi practice.
Bringing about change
As a KG member, Radha had the opportunity to interact with officials in Bengaluru and Hyderabad and tell them about the conditions of devadasi families and their children. She has become a child advocate against the devadasi practice.
“Community members now support KG activities, earlier they resented it,” Radha said with pride in her voice.
During the lockdown, a child marriage was being planned. But the KG girls informed the Childline and the marriage was stopped. In another instance, they learnt that a school dropout was going to be dedicated as a devadasi.
Though the girls faced a lot of challenges, Radha’s KG, along with an NGO, succeeded in preventing the dedication. The girl is now learning a livelihood vocation so that in future she can be economically independent.
A slow awakening
At home, Radha often talked about the activities at the Kishori Group and what she learnt. After hearing this, her mother did not pursue the topic of dedicating Radha as a devadasi. The CSO now supports Radha’s education and provides an annual scholarship of Rs 1,000. Though the stigma Radha faced initially affected her, she stopped being concerned.
“Before joining the KG, I had no idea about any policies related to the devadasi practice, but now I am aware of the practice and that it is illegal,” said Radha.
From eve-teasing to school discrimination
She also said that devadasis are easy prey to eve-teasing because of their family background.
If they speak to any male member – either of their community or others – people cast aspersions on them. She has heard that girls received vulgar messages and photos, though she has not faced this embarrassment.
Radha and many tribal girls talk about the caste discrimination they suffer from the upper caste people since they have started studying now. They understand that the upper caste people are not able to accept this change.
A torch bearer
An active KG member, Radha maintains the register for books borrowed and returned in the library that KG runs. Her desire is to join the police force, but sadly, she doesn’t have the required height for it. So, she has now decided to study nursing. She has also convinced her mother not to worry about her and that she would take care of herself.
Thanks to Radha’s leadership to check any kind of discrimination and violence faced by young girls in her community, a strong force of girl leaders against gender-based violence is emerging.
Girl power to the fore
Since the time I did my first study on devadasis, I have been observing the trajectory of the practice and the efforts to check it.
What is gratifying is the emergence of many Radhas, who have mobilised themselves against devadasi dedications.
The girls are empowered and articulate their aspirations.
For me Radha symbolises the struggle that many rural girls face as easy prey to culture, tradition and religious practices that enslave them.
As the world marks the International Day of the Girl Child, it is the stories of courage like Radha’s that make us proud and confident that these are the true agents of change for a better tomorrow for all!
Aasha Ramesh is a women’s rights advocate with over four decades of experience in the development sector. As an independent professional, currently she is a consultant for the National Rural Livelihood Mission and Transform Rural India Foundation.
This story first appeared on Village Square, and is part of a series in the run-up to National Girl Child Day, Jan 24, 2023, to highlight inspiring stories about the girls of rural India.
Suggested Reading: Tribal Girl Goes From Athlete To Village Leader
We request you to support our award-winning journalism by making a financial contribution towards our efforts. Your funds will ensure we can continue to bring you amazing stories of women, and the impact they are making and spotlight half the country's population because they deserve it.