Devoted to a Hindu goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s sexual slavery began after her uncle took her virginity and raped her in exchange for a sari and some jewellery.
Bhimappa was barely 10 years old when she became a “devadasi” — girls forced by their parents into an elaborate wedding ceremony with a Hindu deity, many of whom are then forced into illegal prostitution.
Devadasis are forbidden to live a life of religious devotion, marry other mortals, and upon reaching puberty are forced to sacrifice their virginity to an older man in exchange for money or gifts.
“In my case it was my mother’s brother,” Bhimappa, now in his 40s, told AFP.
The following years were sexual slavery, meeting other men in the name of serving the goddess to earn money for her family.
Bhimappa is finally freed from his slavery, but because he has no education, he earns about a dollar a day by toiling in the fields.
His time as a devotee of the Hindu goddess Yellamma also ostracized him from his community.
She had loved a man once, but asking him for marriage would be unthinkable.
“If I didn’t have a lawsuit, I would have a family, a child and some money. I would live well,” he said.
Devadasis have been an integral part of south Indian culture for centuries and once held a respectable place in society.
Many were highly educated, engaged in classical dance and music, lived a comfortable life and chose their own sexual partners.
“This concept of more or less religiously sanctioned sexual slavery was not part of the original patronage system,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.
During the 19th century British colonial rule, the divine pact between the devadasi and the goddess turned into an institution of sexual exploitation, Iyer said.
It now serves as a means for poor families at the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to abdicate responsibility for their daughters.
In 1982, the practice was banned in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka, and India’s highest court condemned young girls’ devotion to temples as an “evil”.
And campaigners say young girls are still secretly recruited into devadasi orders.
India’s human rights commission wrote last year that 40 years after the state ban, there are still more than 70,000 devadasi in Karnataka.
– “I was alone” –
Due to the tradition of wedding dowries in India, girls are usually heavy and expensive.
By forcing girls to become devadasis, poor families get a source of income and avoid the cost of marrying them off.
Around the small southern town of Saundatti, home to the venerable Yellamma temple, many households believe that having family members in the order can improve their fortunes or cure a loved one’s illness.
It was in this temple that Sitavva D. Jodatti was united in marriage with the goddess at the age of eight.
Her sisters were all married to other men and her parents decided to dedicate her to Yellamma to provide for them.
Jodatti, 49, told AFP: “When other people get married, they become the bride and groom. When I realized I was alone, I started crying.”
Her father eventually became ill and she was pulled out of school to work as a sex worker and help with his treatment.
“I had two kids when I was 17,” she said.
Rekha Bhandari, a fellow former devadasi, said they were subjected to the practice of “blind tradition” that destroyed their lives.
She was forced into the order after her mother’s death and was 13 when a 30-year-old man took her virginity. Soon she became pregnant.
“It was difficult to have a normal birth. The doctor shouted at my family, saying that I am too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old woman told AFP.
“I had no idea.”
– ‘Many women died’ –
Years of unprotected sex exposed many devadasis to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
“I know women who have been infected and now it’s passed to their children,” an activist working with devadasis told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“They hide it and live in secret. Many women have died.”
Parents are sometimes prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be adopted as devadasis, and women who leave the order are given a meager state pension of 1,500 rupees ($18) a month.
Nitesh Patil, the civil servant who runs Saundatti, told AFP that there had been “no recent times” of women being dedicated to temples.
Last year, India’s law commission ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to disclose what they were doing to prevent the practice, after a media investigation found that devadasi inductions were still widespread.
The stigma surrounding their pasts means that women who leave the devadasi order often endure their lives as shunned or ridiculed, and very few marry.
Many find themselves poor or struggling to make ends meet in low-paid manual labor and agricultural work.
Jodatti now leads a civil society group that AFP spoke to helps lift women out of a life of slavery and supports former devadasis.
She said many of her contemporaries were engaged a few years ago by the #MeToo movement and the personal revelations that famous women around the world came out as survivors of sexual assault.
“We watch the news and sometimes when we see famous people … we realize that their situation is very similar to ours. They have suffered the same. But they continue to live freely,” he said.
“We’ve been through the same thing, but we don’t get the respect they get.
“Devadasi women are still looked down upon.”
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