Whenever I look at married women my age carrying their children, walking by their husband’s side, I think of myself, my life, and my future, and something deep down in me snaps, and I feel like crying,” says Durgamma, who became a Devadasi when she was 12. Her father has arranged her about 20 paramours since, relationships lasting from a week to two years. At 25, she is now too old to be a Devadasi.
The caste system still encourages the institutionalized discrimination of lower caste women by upper caste men, all across India and South East Asia. There are many examples of unfair practises that bind women to prostitution based on caste.
One such is the Devadasi system. Girls as young as 11 are married to goddess Yellamma (Renuka) in a ceremony where a red and white beaded necklace is tied around their necks, signifying a life of bondage. They are then not allowed to marry any man, and implicitly become sex slaves for the upper castes.
At times, priests convince the poor parents that dedicating their daughters would help family members be reborn as high caste Brahmins in their next life. They even allow family members the right to enter temples normally closed off to the lower castes.
At other times, rich landowners exploit the poor by paying for the girl’s dedication as a Devadasi in exchange for the right to spend the first few nights with her.
When priests and other upper caste men sleep with her, they claim it is the goddess’s desires they are appeasing.
In Karnataka alone, there are an estimated 100,000 devadasis. Today, most wind up in the brothels of India’s cities, getting higher rates the younger they are.
Religion and the market behave on the same lines. Young devadasis are regarded as deities, but are discarded when they grow old.
Older devadasi women are often seen sitting around temples begging, their health in horrible condition. With no way to earn money at their age, mothers themselves need their daughters to sell their bodies to feed the family. This leaves no scope of going to school for the little girl and makes it a generational cycle.
About 5,000 to 10,000 girls enter this life of sexual subjugation and subsequently prostitution every year. Most girls and women in India’s urban brothels come from Dalit, lower-caste, tribal, or minority communities. Ninety percent of sex workers’ daughters in India follow their mothers into prostitution.
And prostitution is only the newest variation to a long heritage of exploitation.
Dalit women being sexually abused by the upper castes in various forms is routine all across the country. Women from lower castes who were traditionally dancers and performers, such those of the Bedin community of north and central India, were never allowed to marry. However, upper caste men were allowed to keep them as concubines. If a child was born, only the mother would be responsible.
And this has continued. A Bedin woman still brings up her children alone, whenever she can find time from dancing in front of other men, dealing with hostile police and managing the troupe.
Today, many of these performers are moving to beer bars of Bombay and Dubai to tread the thin line between dancing and prostitution, as demand for their traditional performances is less, possibility of other work is poor, and money is more in the cities.
This abuse still thrives not only in our country, but all around it as well. It is part of the psyche of the entire region and more than any other factor, still determines the fate of generations. The fangs of the caste system run deep and wide.
The daughter of an ‘untouchable’ Dalit Badi woman in Nepal is required to be registered under the surname Nepali at birth. Marked thus, she is expected to follow her mother into the trade of prostitution. Many of them come to Mumbai and Kolkata for this, society allows no alternatives.
According to a noted human rights activist from Karachi, “brutal sexual violence in India has striking parallels with the violence against Dalit women unleashed by feudal forces in Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan.”
It is much the same in Bangladesh. “In several areas, the landed classes use rape as a weapon to displace Dalit families from their land. Fatwas are deployed to psychologically and physically target Dalit women among Muslims,” says a Dalit leader from Dhaka.
Former women cadre of the LTTE belonging to Dalit castes are specifically targeted in Sri Lanka, even after the civil war.
Those born at the bottom can do little to fight this millennial hegemony. Dalit women have no choice but to allow their own abuse, scavenge whatever they can along the way and live to see another day of exploitation.
They are made to remember their unfortunate birth both in the market as well as in the temple; through the only thing they have that society needs – their bodies.
This post originally appeared on Youth ki Awaz and was written by Kabir Sharma.