Our women must either be a wife, widow or a Devadasi

by Olutosin Oladosu -Adebowale

In our community, there are only three roles for women; a wife, widow or Devadasi......

Please go to my village and rescue other girls who are about to be initiated too…

I was told that I was dedicated to our god when I was three months old and was taken to the temple and initiated, a chain was tied to my neck and my grandmother took to me to her house to serve the god, ever since I have been living with her, until the age of ten when I was introduced to my parents. I have lots of struggles, my brother died five years ago, followed by my father which was two years ago and my mother will die any moment from now, nobody believed that it was the incurable disease. Everyone in my community believed that I have brought evil on my parents because of the chain that was removed from my neck and taken to Bandhavi….I have lots of issues….

My mother is a Devadasi, so I am supposed to be one too; I thought it was right because my mother is involved that it is good that I was involved too….

May be it was good in the past because I think it was just meant to serve God but later the system got polluted and Devadasi were married off to their sponsors….

After I came here and learned about another world, that is when I started to believe that Devadasi should be discontinued so when I go back to my village, I will be involved in the campaign to stop Devadasi system...

They are girls between ages eight to eighteen, presently they are seventy five in number, they are beautiful, bright, young and just learning through semi formal education, there are variations in the colors and ages but they all have one thing in common, they escaped from the Devadasi system into a new system called Bandhavi which means 'girl friend', they are liberated and free from oppression and they have one agitation; rescue other girls, "free my sister and neighbors daughters" was the song on their lips.

Devadasi is a coinage from two words, "deva" which means God and "dasi" means servant, literally it is a good name; servant of god, but in actuality it is a girl child dedicated to serve God in the temple, unfortunately she is a priest during the day and the wife of the sponsor at night. These girls who are sacrificed are just unfortunate to be born into poverty and oppression through the Devadasi mother system. It is a system upheld by religious belief and encouraged by the law that penalizes offenders but does not criminalize the offense, it is against the law but practiced by every member of these communities because there is no stiff punishment for the law breakers.

There are three reasons for a girl to be a Devadasi in India; if there are only girls in a family, while others are married off one must remain in the family to be sacrificed at the temple, she will remain unmarried, remain at home to become the Devadasi, the unofficial wife of the temple master, she is allowed to bear children for the master who is also the sponsor but the Devadasi girls cannot marry him, she must remain unmarried to serve at the temple. Often the girls receive little or no assistant from the sponsor after delivery of several children as the case may be, later in life, they are forced to become prostitutes.

Secondly, when there is a major illness that runs in a family, it indicates that the Gods wants the sacrifice of a virgin, therefore there will be a ritual to offer a girl from such family to the Gods, this is believed to placate their God and secure his favour and protection from diseases. Thirdly, if the mother is Devadasi, her daughter must toe the line.

Sexual intercourse with the sponsor of a Devadasi girl begins immediately after the initiation. This is practiced especially with the Dalits who are mostly the poorest of the poor. Among the girls interviewed is a thirteen year old girl whose immediate younger sister has been married off to the sponsor because she was rescued by a Non Governmental Organization. Devadasi is a name no one will ever allow anyone to call her child in a civilized world after watching the lives of Devadasi who are predominantly from three states in India. The states are; Karnataka (North), Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, Devadasi was stopped in Mumbai (Bombay) in 1972, but practiced in these three states till today.

The caste system in India left some indelible marks in the lives of the Devadasi and the silence of the state in the face of this oppression cannot be ignored. Therefore every agitation to halt the oppression of the poor must be channeled towards the collapse of the caste system in India. Poverty is not a disease, no one ever chooses to be poor, not a child will make such a decision if allowed the freedom of choice but man inhumanity to fellow men has continually ingrained ugly systems in our society.

Their song continually echo in our minds even long after their departure and it brought the words of Mahatma Gandhi to mind that “you will call India a truly free country when a woman is truly free to walk at night”, when women are free to make and live their choices, today India is at a crossroad like every other nation that refuses to accept the liberation of women long after these nations are free from external domination and oppression from colonial masters. Several women are still bearing the burden of oppression, from their family, community, state, supra state and the market (local, national and international); there is no freedom without responsibility, to be called a free state, every nation must be willing to free women.

One of the Bandhavi whispered these words into my ears.......please come and rescue other Devadasi girls in my community.....and I whisper to your ears too......come let us rescue some of these girls in Northern Karnakata...let us rescue Devadasi girls in India.....we can rescue every girl child from oppression...

First published at World Pulse, Olutosin founded the Stop the Abuse of Rights during her training as one of the Voices of our Future Correspondents on World Pulse.