Posted by: helpachildtostudy | May 26, 2009

Ancient Traditions, New Stigmas

“What do your mother and father do?”

For most students it would be a straight forward question to answer but Lata, who had come for our scholarship interview paused uncomfortably before replying. She was hesitant to admit it even though it would give her case an extra edge – her mother was a devadasi.

Before joined Help A Child I had never heard of devadasis, the practice is not known within major cities although it is still prevalent within many places of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

It’s an ancient tradition where a girl is ‘dedicated’ to a particular deity in a ritual. After this she is considered his wife and can never marry. Traditionally devadasis enjoyed a high status within society, they performed dances or song in temple rituals and were free either to remain celibate or choose their own sexual partners. These days as patronage for the practice has declined many devdasis have been reduced to prostitution. Those who do not work as prostitutes generally become labourers and lead lives of poverty. Officially the practice was declared illegal in Karnataka in 1982, but there are still more than 22,000 women within the state recorded as being devadasis.

While the practice is illegal, many girls are still forced into it by their parents due to poverty, as since the girl cannot marry her earnings will be used to support her family. The high social standing is now gone and devadasis and their children are looked down upon within society.

The children of devadasis and girls in particular face unique challenges in life. In a society where a child’s middle name is always that of their father, a devadasi’s children will take hers instead. On most official forms and documents in India the name of the child’s father is required to be listed but what is the child of a devadasi able to write? Within society they have no right to claim their father’s property or name.

Many times there is pressure from the community for a devadasi’s daughter to follow in her footsteps, and the mother generally has very little alternative. Devadasi’s daughters are also often married off at very young ages of 12 or 13, as their mothers are afraid that their daughters will either be pushed into the tradition or be able to find a husband later.

However as Lata’s appearance at the interview shows, times are changing and some devadasis are striving to ensure that their daughters do not suffer the same fate that they did. Over the years Help A Child has sponsored several students who are the children of devadasis, the first of which Rajkumar, has now graduated and is working as a primary school teacher. This year we have received three applications from children of devadasis, one girl and two boys. I can only hope that sponsorship will help them to complete their education and overcome the social stigma that they currently face.

If you would like to read some more on the subject then these websites have a decent amount of information:

Lata and her mother

Lata and her Mother

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