Though outlawed in 1988, the Devadasi system persists, forcing women into a lifetime of sexual exploitation. The Devadasi community in three villages around Bellary district, Karnataka, exemplifies the painful struggle for survival and dignity under this regressive practice.

Durgamma ran up to my auto rickshaw shouting “I’m also Devadasi; shoot me, shoot me”. Her naive vulnerability was in stark contrast to the perplexing image I had of the contemporary Devadasi.

The history of Devadasis speaks of complex sexual identities, misplaced sense of family, organised crime against lower castes, social stigmatisation, exploitative ideas of servitude and a painful human struggle for survival and dignity.

While in practice, the ‘Devadasi’ system differs in form and context across India, it is safe to say that it is customary in all its versions for a girl to be ‘married’ and dedicated to a Deity. In 1947, the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act was passed, making it illegal to dedicate girls to Hindu temples. And by 1988, the Devadasi system was outlawed all over the country. However the practice persists in some parts, moving the community from dance, palaces and temples to HIV clinics and abject poverty.

Karnataka, for instance, has identified close to 30,000 Devadasi women (basavis or jogitis in Karnataka) in the latest survey. In the villages near Bellary Town – Holagallu (where I meet Durgamma) and Kudithini, live a few thousands of families that have either followed the Devadasi tradition over generations or embraced the practice due to economic compulsions.

While the Articles 34 and 35 of the Convention of Rights of the Child calls for the state to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation, organised crime against the lower caste children seems to continue with such religious sanction. Parvathiamma (name changed) was forced to sleep with her uncle at the age of 8 after a marriage ceremony to Goddesses Huligamma. When she refused to comply, her genetalia was mutilated. A lifetime of violation, sexual abuse and exploitation ensued. She is now 40 and inflicted with AIDS. Her daughters were also dedicated to Goddess Yellama.

The Karnataka state rehabilitation program announced a paltry sum of Rs.400 as monthly pension from 2007-08 onwards to all Devadasis above the age of 45. The pension however hasn’t reached the larger part of the community. The Government also announced home loans for those who are younger, and subsidies for those who remarry. However the women in Holagallu haven’t even heard of any of these clearly indicating loopholes in the implementation of the welfare measures.

The community makes a compelling plea to the state Government to tighten the enforcement of the laws and seeks rehabilitation of the Devadasis. An increase in the monthly pension, implementation of housing schemes, free education for children, distribution of BPL and ration cards and vocational training are some of the critical first steps. A good place to begin, is extensive research to bring in a more nuanced and data centric understanding of the economic and social dimensions of the lives of Devadasis. This must be followed by focused interventions in the areas of health, education, gainful employment and trafficking.

During the annual festival at Saundatti, the elaborate Devarige biduvudu, dedication to the deity, is conducted, where jogathis (female) and jogappas (male) are initiated in the service of Yellamma. It is marked by Muttu kattuvudu, in which beads from the goddess’s necklace are tied around the girl’s neck. The girls must then express their commitment to the deity by parading in total nudity or covering their bodies with neem foliage. Thanks to the Devadasi Prohibition Act, the ceremonies are now performed in secret.

Durgamma was married at the age of 10, even before puberty, to Yellama. She was then initiated into prostitution after being forced to sleep with her maternal uncle. She has six children now, four of whom are girls. It seems impossible for her to sustain a living if she decides not to dedicate the girl’s life to Yellama or Hulligemma.

Mudamma’s parents vowed to dedicate their first child to Huligamma, if it were a girl. This is a common practice when there are no sons in the family. Also if the girl's family had some property, a marriage to the Deity would ensure that the property stays within the family.

According to the National Commission of Women, over 2.5 lakh girls, most of whom belong to the Dalit communities, are dedicated to temples in the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. Besides Karnataka, the Devadasi system continues in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. A 1993-94 survey found there were 22,873 Devadasis spread across 10 districts. And a re-survey in 2007, revealed that there are around 30,000 Devadasis in 14 districts.

Some Devadasis seem to go into trance during festivals and direct families to dedicate their daughter to the deity. Conversation with some of these women indicates that it is possible that influential people from the higher castes may pay the Devadasis to go into a trance and select a certain girl they fancy for dedication.

Jayamma has six children to take care of, one of whom is mentally challenged. Frequent abortions and children born with congenital diseases are common. These children too are dedicated to the goddess.

Mariamma is inconsolable. Her name doesn’t figure in the Karnataka government survey conducted to identify Devadasis over the age of 45 for the monthly pension. She now has no means of income and can neither afford food three times a day nor a visit to the doctor for her injured leg.

Some women have walked out to eke out a living as agricultural labourers, making less than Rs. 20 a day. Their children look emaciated and malnourished; education and a regular job are distant dreams.

Uligamma doesn’t believe Yellama will come to her rescue. She made up her mind to educate her grandchildren. She has seen too many aged Devadasis living in squalor, dying either of poverty or of sexually transmitted diseases.

Tipamma glares angrily, cynical and indifferent to any change one might promise. She asserts “None of you can empathize with our suffering. But if you do, have the courage to confront the people and systems that caused us this state of affairs. You can’t profess your solidarity with us if you don’t have the spine to support and challenge the powerful”.

Our National Policy for children recognises child survival, health, nutrition, education, development and protection as undeniable rights of every child. According to the policy, a long term, sustainable, integrated and inclusive approach is necessary for protecting children of the country. One hopes optimistically that this policy translates into practice and that the term “Child of God” ceases to have the Devadasi connotation.