Dedicated to the Indian goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual service began when her uncle raped her in exchange for a saree and some jewelry.
Bhimappa was not yet 10 years old when she became a “devadasi”, a girl whose parents forced her to perform Meticulously married to Hindu deities, most of whom were forced into prostitution.
Devadasis is expected to live a life of religious devotion by banning intermarriage and being Forced into adulthood to sacrifice virginity to an old man in exchange for money or gifts.
“In my case, it was my mother’s brother,” Bhimappa, now 40, told AFP.
What followed was years of sex slavery earning money for her family by meeting other men in Name serving God.
Bhimappa eventually freed her from slavery, but without education she earned about a dollar a day working in the fields.
Her time as a devotee of the Hindu god Yellamma also made her a villain in the eyes of her community.
She once fell in love with a man, but did not expect that she would ask him to marry her.
“If I were not a devadasi, I would have a family and children and some money. I would live well,” she said.
Devadasis has been an integral part of southern Indian culture for centuries and was once a revered place in society.
Many are highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, live comfortably and choose their own sexual partner.
“The idea of more or less religiously sanctioned sexual slavery is not part of the original system of sponsorship,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.
In the 19th century, during the British colonial period, the divine agreement between devadasi and goddesses evolved into an institution of sexual exploitation, Iyer said.
It now serves as a means for impoverished families from the bottom of India’s strict caste hierarchy to ease the burden on their daughters.
The practice was banned in the Bhimappa state of Karnataka back in 1982, and India’s Supreme Court has described the young girl’s devotion to the temple as “evil.”
However, campaigners say the young girl is still being sneaked into devadasi orders.
India’s Human Rights Commission wrote last year that four decades after the state ban, there are still more than 70,000 devadasis in Karnataka.
– ‘I’m Alone’ –
Girls are commonly seen as a burden and cost in India due to the tradition of wedding dowry.
By forcing daughters to become devadasis, poor families gain a source of income and avoid the cost of marrying them.
Many families around the small town of South Saundatti, home to the revered Yellamma Church, believe that having regular family members can lift their fortunes or cure a loved one.
It was at this temple that Sitavva D. Jodatti was ordered to marry the princess when she was eight years old.
Her sisters married all the other men and her parents decided to hand her over to Yellamma to support them.
“When other people get married there is a bride and groom. When I know I’m alone, I start crying,” Jodatti, 49, told AFP.
Her father eventually fell ill and was expelled from school for sex work and medical bills.
“At the age of 17, I had two children,” she said.
Rekha Bhandari, a former devadasi, said they were subjected to “blind traditions” that had ruined their lives.
She was forced into the ranks after the death of her mother and was 13 when the man was 30 years old. Years took her virginity. Suddenly she was pregnant.
“A normal delivery is very difficult. Doctors shouted at my family, saying I was too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old told AFP.
“I have no sympathy.”
“Many women have died” –
Years of unsafe sex have exposed many diseases to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
“I know of infected women and now it has infected their children,” an activist working with devadasis who asked not to be named told AFP.
“They hid it and lived with it in secret. Many women died.”
Parents are occasionally convicted for allowing their daughters to be included in the form of devadasis, and women who leave orders are given a modest government pension of 1,500 rupees ($ 18) a month.
Nitesh Patil, the official in charge of Saundatti, told AFP that there were no “recent cases” of women being dedicated to the temple.
India’s Human Rights Commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to highlight what they are doing to protect the practice after a media investigation found that the inclusion of devadasi was still widespread.
The stigma surrounding their past means that women who leave their devadasi order often endure life as extraterrestrials or objects of ridicule, and very few marry.
Many perceive themselves as poor or struggling to make ends meet by working in low-paying jobs and farming.
Jodatti now leads a civil society group that has helped expel women who AFP has spoken to them about their service life and provided support for former devadasis.
She says many of her contemporaries over the years have become terrified by the #MeToo movement and the show. The personalities of famous women around the world who show them as survivors of sexual abuse.
“We watch the news and sometimes when we see celebrities … we understand that their situation is the same as ours. They suffer the same but they continue to live freely,” she said.
“We went through the same experience, but we did not get the respect they received.
“Devadasi women are still despised.”
ash / gle / mca / aha / dhc