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India: The plight of young girls forced to 'marry gods'

Midhat Fatimah in New Delhi
April 19, 2023

The ancient Devadasi system pushes poverty-stricken girls from the lowest rung of India's caste system into sexual slavery. DW takes a look at why the practice persists despite efforts to eliminate it.

Indian woman who became a Devadasi sex worker
The ancient religious practice still traps young girls in India in a life of sexual exploitationImage: Imago/ZumaPress

Born into conditions of extreme poverty in India's southern state of Karnataka, Ningavva Kanal took a huge decision that completely changed the course of her life.

Kanal — the youngest in a family of 10 — had watched how her eldest sister was pushed into prostitution and how it enabled her to provide for the entire family.

"Back in those days, our condition was so bad that if our parents did not find work during the day then we would not have anything to eat at night," Kanal told DW.

At just 7 years of age, she decided to shoulder the responsibility of supporting the family and walk along a similar path to prostitution. But in her case, she became a 'slave of the god' — a Devadasi.

A life of sexual exploitation

When a young girl who is yet to attain puberty becomes a Devadasi, she is "dedicated" to a village temple through an act of marriage to the local deity which also means she will never marry a mortal man in her life.

Kanal used to work as a prostitute in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and had two daughters by her 18th birthday.

"I used to perform at weddings but at times men would also forcefully take me away in their cars and rape me," the 54-year-old Devadasi recalled.

Devadasi women during a Sampark community meeting
Though outlawed, the Devadasi system continues clandestinely — forcing women into a lifetime of sexual exploitationImage: Sampark

What is India's Devadasi system?

The centuries-old practice finds its origin in the legend of the goddess Yellamma whose temple in the town of Saundatti is at the center of this practice.

Devadasis were seen as mediators between God and his devotees who would appease God through their dance and music. Their performances for the deity would also attract the gaze of temple priests, rich landlords, upper-caste men and kings. Devadasis would also engage in sexual relationships with men from the dominant caste and class.

Until the 19th century, Devadasis enjoyed a high socioeconomic status.

"It's true they had some status but it was because their patrons were rich and influential men. It is not as though they had dignity as a Devadasi," said Dr Smita Premchander, founder and secretary of Sampark, an NGO which focuses on women's empowerment.

"Over time, Devadasis started losing their patronage as the British outlawed the practice," she added. 

Dalit communities at risk

A 2015 report on the condition of Devadasis by Sampark — which was submitted to the International Labour Organisation — noted that 85% of the respondents were women from Dalit communities — the lowest rung of India's caste system.

"There is a very strong caste component in this practice. It is found among the lowest rung of the scheduled castes," said Aasha Ramesh, a women's rights advocate.

India: Married to a deity and forced into prostitution

The Devadasi system is practiced in many states across India but is predominantly practiced in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

The Karnataka government declared the custom unlawful in 1982 through the Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, however, a 2019 report by Center for Law and Policy Research noted that the state government is yet to draft the rules to administer the law.

Premchander said that child protection laws need to be applied in instances where minor girls are at risk of being dedicated.

Sampark argues that besides the Devadasi law, other relevant legislations — like the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Act — also need to be invoked to deter the practice.

Last October, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to India's central government and six state governments requesting what action they had taken to resolve "the continued menace of Devadasi system in various temples, especially in southern part of India."

Devadasis fight for their dignity

It was only in 2022 that the state government made father's name optional for enrollment of children of Devadasi to schools.

"In this tradition, the girl child usually follows her mother and becomes a devadasi," said B.L. Patil, founder of Vimochana Sangha, an NGO working with the Devadasi community.

"To avoid this, we started a residential school for children of Devadasis."

Devadasi women during sessions with Sampark workers
The Devadasi community exemplifies the painful struggle for survival and dignity under this regressive practiceImage: Sampark

There were 46,600 Devadasis in Karnataka as per the last government survey conducted in 2008. 

The survey was crucial as it allowed the Devadasis to avail of social welfare schemes. 

But thousands of Devadasis were not included, and many others — who were inducted into the practice after the survey took place — have been excluded from the schemes.

Mahananda Kanal is among those who were not questioned for the survey. She suffers from shingles and is supported solely by her teenage son.

"I never left my village because of my ailment and therefore was unaware of the survey," the 35-year-old Devadasi said, adding that she desperately needs the monthly welfare payments.

"In terms of Devadasis needs, it's very important to conduct a new survey," Premchander said.

"The women are still alive and are desperately in need. Even if the practice has been outlawed, the Devadasis still exist."

Edited by: Keith Walker