The customary practice of the Devadasi System in India can be traced back to the 6th century A.D., during the Keshari Dynasty of South India. The practice in which young girls were married to deities, before they actually reached puberty was not only considered as honorable, but was also a matter of pride for the family members. It was believed that if a daughter was offered to the god, the members of the family would be blessed and it would add prestige to their status. Hence, it was believed that offering themselves to the deity would not only bring reverence, but would also help them live a better life. Hence, these girls were subsequently trained in classical dance, especially Bharatnatyam so that they could perform the dance during the temple rituals. This, to them, served as an incentive as they primarily belonged to the poor socio-economic background and always dreamt of living a desirable life. After having them married to the immortal, they were treated as Goddess Lakshmi, the auspicious, who had submitted themselves completely to take care of the God and the temple.
The respectability with respect to this convention saw its dissolution during the Islamic and the British rule. During the former’s regime, North India was invaded and all the temples were destructed. This was the beginning of the loss of the patronage and the status of the Devadasis. With no proper place to stay, they were then sexually exploited by high caste individuals and patrons of the temples, and this thereby increased the rate of underground religious prostitution.
While the historical interpretation of this practice was associated with honor, the modern outlook is completely different. The devadasis in the present scenario are seen to be unwillingly forced into this ruthless practice of sexual trade. Even though this practice brings pain to the young women, it is still practiced in some parts of southern and western India. There have been certain social, religious and economic factors that have driven the families to elevate their daughter’s position to that of the devadasis. Socially, they believe that they would come out of the rigid caste-based asymmetric structures and will be able to hold esteemed positions in this ladder. As the devadasis are called by the upper caste individuals to bless their families, it is a widely held belief among the lower caste people that this will do away with the concept of ‘impurity’ with which their caste has been recognized. Economically, as they belong to the low-income groups, marrying off the daughter to a man of another family causes the cost solely to be incurred by the bride’s family. However, offering a girl to the God, allows the girl to earn for herself while giving blessings in the temples. This economic incentive allows them to happily accept this way of life. According to India’s Human Rights Commission, there is a belief that “offering something to the deity is rewarded bountifully”. With this dominant religious belief, families are encouraged by the temple priests to offer their daughters.
However, the current trend shows a dismal picture. The practice being underground and difficult to differentiate from non-religious and voluntary act of prostitution, the statistics remain unreported and difficult to confirm. However, according to the Indian National Commission for Women, there are at least 44,000 active devadasis in India and the majority of them are in Karnataka(22,491), Andhra Pradesh(16,624) and Maharashtra(2,479). A survey carried out by The Joint Women’s Programme reported that over 63.6% of young girls were forced into the Devadasi system due to custom, while 38% had a family history of devadasis. In spite of it being geographically limited, it has a nationwide impact. Girls from the other parts of India are illegally trafficked to the southern states so that they can surrender themselves to the upper caste people in the name of God.
International Labor Organization’s Committee of Experts in 2010, noted that the devadasi system was linked to the practice of trafficking girls for commercial exploitation. Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill does not recognize these dedicated girls as victims of trafficking for sexual purposes.
India has implemented various laws to bring a halt to this malicious practice. Bombay Devadasi Protection Act 1934, Madras Devadasi Act of 1947, Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act 1982, Andhra Pradesh Devadasi Act 1988 and Maharashtra Devadasi Act 2006 have been passed. Section 372 of the IPC prohibits selling minors for the purpose of prostitution and Immoral Traffic(Prevention) Act 1956 also makes prostitution in or the vicinity of public places an offence. Surprisingly, there has been illegal nationwide trafficking in the midst of such laws in place. There have been various loopholes in these acts irrespective of the Supreme Court’s direction to Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to strictly enforce the directives to keep a check on such unethical practices. Modern Acts concerning children– Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences(POCSO) Act of 2012 and Juvenile Justice Act of 2015 do not recognize this practice as a form of sexual exploitation of children.
These laws which are in practice, question the legal framework in addressing this malevolent convention. In the case of Vishal Jeet Vs. Union of India (1990), Supreme Court noted, “ In spite of the stringent and rehabilitative provisions of law under various acts, it cannot be said that the desired results have been achieved”. Religious sanctions bind communities by presenting the conventional notion, which is perpetuated and carried forward by the ancestors. Putting policies in place makes it difficult to evade such entrenched ideas. To transform these religious atrocities from customary to an uncustomary practice, laws fail in their implementation. Thus, it is believed that initiatives and governance at a decentralised level will bring more sustainable and long-term impact in comparison to the efforts at the centralized level.
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