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Women who lived as sex slaves to an Indian goddess

Dedicated to an Indian goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual servitude began when her uncle took her virginity, raping her in exchange for a saree and some jewelry.

Bhimappa was not yet 10 when she became a “devadasi” – girls coerced by their parents into an elaborate ritual marriage to a Hindu deity, many of whom are then forced into illegal prostitution.

Devadasis are expected to live a life of religious devotion, forbidden to marry other mortals and forced at puberty 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 late 40s, told AFP.

What followed were years of sexual slavery, earning money for her family through dating other men in the name of serving the goddess.

Bhimappa eventually escaped her servitude, but with no education, she earns about a dollar a day working in the fields.

Her time as a devotee of the Hindu goddess Yellamma has also made her an outcast in the eyes of her community.

She loved a man once, but it would have been unthinkable for her to ask him to marry her.

“If I wasn’t a devadasi, I would have a family, children and some money. I would have lived well,” she said.

Devadasis have been an integral part of South Indian culture for centuries and once enjoyed a respectable place in society.

Many were highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, lived comfortable lives, and chose their own sexual partners.

“This notion of more or less religiously sanctioned sexual slavery was not part of the original patronage system,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.

Iyer said that in the 19th century, during the British colonial era, the divine pact between devadasi and the goddess evolved into an institution of sexual exploitation.

It now serves as a means for impoverished families at the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to shed responsibility for their daughters.

The practice was banned in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka in 1982, and India’s high court has described girls’ devotion to temples as an “evil”.

Activists, however, say girls are still secretly inducted into devadasi orders.

Four decades after the state ban, there are still more than 70,000 devadasis in Karnataka, India’s human rights commission wrote last year.

– ‘I was alone’ –

Girls are commonly seen as heavy and expensive in India due to the tradition of marriage dowries.

By forcing daughters to become devadasis, poorer families gain a source of income and avoid the costs of marrying them off.

Many families around the small southern town of Saundatti – home to a revered Yellamma temple – believe that having a family member in the order can increase their fortunes or cure a loved one’s illness.

It was in this temple that Sitavva D. Jodatti was summoned to marry the goddess when she was eight years old.

All her sisters married other men and her parents decided to dedicate her to Yellamma to support them.

“When other people get married, there is a bride and groom. When I realized I was alone, I started to cry,” Jodatti, 49, told AFP.

Her father became ill and she was withdrawn from school to dedicate herself to sex work and help pay for his treatment.

“By 17, I had two kids,” she said.

Rekha Bhandari, a former devadasi, said they were subjected to a “blind tradition” practice that ruined 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. She became pregnant soon after.

“A normal birth was difficult. The doctor yelled at my family, saying I was too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old woman told AFP.

“I had no understanding.”

– ‘Many women died’ –

Years of unsafe sex have exposed many devadasis to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

“I know women who are infected and have now passed it on to their children,” an activist who works with devadasis, who asked not to be identified, told AFP.

“They hide it and live with it in secret. Many women have died.”

Fathers are occasionally prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be inducted as devadasis, and women who leave the order receive meager government pensions of 1,500 rupees ($18) a month.

Nitesh Patil, a civil servant who runs Saundatti, told AFP there had been “no recent instances” of women dedicating themselves to temples.

India’s rights commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to describe what they were doing to stop the practice, after a media investigation found that devadasi inductions were still widespread.

The stigma surrounding their past means that women who leave their devadasi order often live as outcasts or objects of ridicule, and few marry.

Many find themselves in destitution or struggling to survive with poorly paid manual labor and agricultural work.

Jodatti now runs a civil society group that has helped free women the AFP spoke to from their lives of bondage and provides support to former devadasis.

She said that many of her contemporaries for several years have been engrossed in the #MeToo movement and the personal revelations of celebrities around the world who have revealed them as survivors of sexual abuse.

“We watch the news and sometimes when we see famous people… we understand that their situation is very similar to ours. They suffered the same. But they continue to live freely”, she said.

“We went through the same experience, but we didn’t get the respect they get.

“Devadasi women are still looked down upon.”