Where Virginity Is For Sale in India
By Joanna Sugden for The Wall Street Journal
In Koppal, an impoverished district in Karnataka, virginity is for sale.
When girls dedicated in local temples under the illegal devadasi system hit puberty, their virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Traditionally girls in this district in south India undergo an 11-day purification ceremony following the onset of menstruation. The “first maturity” ceremony, as they call it in Koppal, marks the transition into womanhood.
Bheemakka, who doesn’t have a surname because she doesn’t know who her father is, went through the puberty ritual in March, but she wasn’t sold.
The 11-year-old’s mother and grandmother are both devadasis, which means female servants of god. They were dedicated to the Hindu deity Yellamma as children and sold off after hitting puberty. They have been used by the men in their village for sex since their early teens.
Bheemakka says she was covered in turmeric and sandlewood paste as part of the purification process. After washing off the concoction, she was kept indoors for 11 days. Afterwards, her neighbors came over for a party.
“I enjoyed the attention,” says Bheemakka, wearing a bright pink shirt stretched tight over her chest and a red wilting flower clipped into her black braided bunches. “But I’m not going to become one of them.”
She means a devadasi. “Society looks down on them and they are labeled as prostitutes.”
Some say the original devadasi system of giving over females in service or marriage to a deity dates back to the ninth Century, but others believe it has existed in some form since 2500 B.C.
Their role and status have changed over the years.
In their heyday, between the 13th and 16th centuries, devadasis were high caste, educated women — sometimes from royal families — who performed dances for Yellamma, the deity, and looked after the temple precinct. They were forbidden from marrying mortals.
Historians record that by the 16th Century the role of devadasis had become sexualized and they were regarded in the community as auspicious high-class mistresses who men could visit for sex with impunity. Successive legislation to ban the practice since the 19th Century however meant that their status declined and lower caste women began to take their place.
The system was outlawed in Karnataka in 1982 but it is still widely practiced, mainly by poor, illiterate Dalit women in the northern parts of Karnataka, in places like Koppal, according to charities working in the region.
Many devadasis in Koppal have one partner who is usually already married and regards the devadasi as his “second woman” but not a legal wife. Other devadasis who don’t have the support of one man, known as a mallik (master), have many partners.
The penalty for anyone taking part in a devadasi dedication is up to five years imprisonment.
Government rehabilitation programs for ex-devadasis offer 400 rupees ($7.25) a month as a “pension” for the 46,000 women they have identified in Karnataka who say they have given up the role. Local NGOs working with both devadasi and ex-devadasi women say that amount is a pittance and not enough to deter women from continuing as devadasis with quasi-support from a partner.
“Every time they get paid the pension they have to give some back as a bribe,” said Nazar P. Sainudheen, an advocacy co-ordinator for Visthar, an NGO working with devadasi women and their children in Koppal since 2005. “They aren’t empowered enough to take a stand,” he added.
Nagar Raj, general manager of the Karnataka government’s Women’s Development Corporation, says sometimes there is a delay in getting the money to the women. “But we have not received any complaints about bribery,” he said.
Mr. Raj added that the devadasi system was “not existing” in Karnataka now because of better education. “If anyone is practicing they can be arrested,” he said.
But David Selvaraj, founder and director of Visthar, says programs and legislation have failed to eradicate the devadasi practice.
“You can go to temples where there will be a plaque on the wall saying that dedication of daughters is banned and round the back there will be a room where those dedications still take place,” Mr. Selvaraj says. “It’s an abuse of women with a religious sanction.”
In 2010, his organization set up a free school and residential home called Bandhavi (meaning “friend” in Kannada, the local language) for the daughters of devadasi women who are at risk of being dedicated into the system.
Bheemakka is one of its pupils. After her 11 days of purification she returned to the school, located on a copper-orange patch of land in the village of Chikkabidanal, just beyond Karnataka’s fertile cotton belt.
The 11-year-old left her job working as an agricultural laborer to join the school in 2011 after a team from Visthar arrived in her village asking if anyone wanted to have a taster day at the school.
“If I didn’t come to school my brain wouldn’t grow and I wouldn’t get to know what is right and what is wrong,” she says. Above her on the classroom wall is a portrait of perhaps India’s most famous Dalit, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who drafted the country’s constitution.
“He was a poor boy like us,” says Bheemakka before rattling off his achievements in enshrining freedom of religion and equality in the constitution.
There are 100 girls at the school. Mr. Selvaraj says he could fill it many times over with the daughters of devadasi in the area. Some have entered child marriages or been rescued from child labor. Most, according to Mr. Selvaraj, were at risk of being made devadasis.
It costs $24 a month to look after a pupil at the school. Around 80% of the funding comes from Kindernothilfe, a German NGO.
Around half of the pupils, like Bheemakka, don’t have enough education to go straight into mainstream school so they join the Bandhavi bridge school where they learn the basics as well as lessons on current affairs and human rights.
Another pupil at Bandhavi, 15-year-old Jyothi, says one of the best things about the school is not being teased about her parents.
“Outside, other children used to say to me, ‘We don’t know how many men your mother has slept with and then you were born.’ Here that doesn’t happen,” Jyothi says.
Both Jyothi and Bheemakka say their mothers are happy that they have joined Bandhavi. But money worries can sometimes tempt them to remove the girls from the school.
“Our mothers’ dreams are very small,” said Bheemakka.
These small dreams mean their mothers believe it may be easier to put them to work in the fields and eventually as devadasis, she added.
“It’s not because our mothers are our enemies,” Bheemakka says. “The situation and the cost of daily life make them think that we shouldn’t be here… But it’s only for a short time and we can bring change because of our learning.”
Bheemakka says she hopes to become a teacher and help others enjoy their childhood and education.
“I’m expected to do the same as my mother and go down that channel,” she says. “But I’m going to break the chain.”
Joanna Sugden is freelance journalist living in Delhi. Before coming to India in 2011 she spent four-and-a-half years as a reporter at The Times of London, covering religion and education. You can follow her on Twitter @jhsugden.