ASIA NEWS REPORT
by Santosh Digal
According to the Hindu tradition, the devadasi are the "courtesans" of the temple god. In fact, they cannot marry and are exploited as prostitutes. With their children, they live a life of poverty and marginalization. A group of Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod is teaching new skills to the devadasi of 10 villages, creating classrooms for 500 children.
Bangalore (AsiaNews) - To free the devadasi, the "sacred prostitutes" of Hinduism, from exploitation, oppression and marginalization, teaching them trades and sending their children to school. This is the mission undertaken by a group of Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod in Karnataka. The nuns have dealt with 10 villages, where they created classes for 50 children, and other centres for support and activities that accommodate about 500 children. "For the moment", said Sister T. Jose, "we've managed to convince a group of women to give up this 'profession', and others also seem motivated."
The devadasi system is a Hindu practice, whereby a girl is "dedicated" to a deity of the temple. From the Sanskrit deva, "god", and dasi, "slave", originally these girls were a sort of priestess: once they became devadasi they could not marry, and they had to perform ritual dances and stay in the temple as "courtesans" of the gods. Over time, these young people have become real prostitutes, although in 1988 this practice became illegal all over India. "Today", the religious emphasizes, "it is nothing more than prostitution. The devadasi do not live in temples, but in huts. The problem of trafficking in women and children for sexual purposes has assumed an even greater proportion, because of the social stigma that befalls them."
According to research by the Department for Women and Children of Karnataka, in 2008 there were 5,051 devadasi in the District of Riachur. The factors that feed this system are poverty (50%), the absence of a male in the family (11.3%), the influence of village leaders (15.4%), the existence of other devadasi in the home (40%), superstitions, like having matted hair on the top of the head or a prolonged illness (2.3%). In general, parents or grandparents decide that their daughters will become the devadasi when they are still very small. The vow takes place in secret as soon as the young girls have reached puberty.
Today, the devadasi and their children live in extreme poverty, because they have no fixed income. The offerings of the clients are meagre and irregular, because as "sacred prostitutes" they cannot ask for money. Some are forced to beg, or to perform daily chores. HIV/AIDS is widespread, which often kills the women, leaving their children orphans. The little ones experience the worst problems: stigmatized by society, without a father to give them a name, without financial support, unable to go to school. For the girls, life almost always has in store for them a future as devadasi, like their mothers.
In their mission, the sisters have organized a real network of initiatives, aimed at the prevention, awareness and rehabilitation of these women in society. The nuns have been able to involve the whole community. "The children's self-esteem", says Sister Jose, "has grown, and having taught trades to their mothers has increased their chances of finding a job and earning a living in another way."
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