In September 2017, India’s National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu about the dedication of young girls to the Devadasi system. However, this practice has continued. Most recently, in August 2018, a woman in Karnataka alleged initiation into the Devadasi system. Despite being outlawed for over 30 years, the Devadasi system continues to enslave Dalit girls into forced marriage and prostitution.
The Devadasi system is a Hindu religious practice which offers prepubescent girls in marriage to deities. As ‘servants’ ordained by deities, Devadasis are ritually forced to offer sexual services upon attaining puberty. Their virginity is sold and they are paid a pittance for their services, if at all. Devadasis are marginalised as ‘fallen women’ and kept in poverty. With age, Devadasis are deemed undesirable. They turn to begging, trafficking or manual labour to earn their livelihood.
Devadasis are overwhelmingly ‘identified’ from the Dalit community, which lies excluded from the caste system and is subject to systemic socio-economic oppression. Poverty-stricken Dalit families may also dedicate daughters to earn livelihoods, avoid paying dowry and receive divine help or cure from disease. Devadasis’ children are stigmatised by society and unacknowledged by their fathers. Devadasis are perpetually trapped in cycles of poverty, vulnerability and sexual and psychological abuse.
India is obliged to end institutions similar to slavery, the exploitation of children, human trafficking and forced marriages under Articles 10(1) and 10(3) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Articles 8(1), 23(3) and 24(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Articles 6 and 16(1) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Articles 19, 24(3), 32(1), 34 and 36 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and Article 1 of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.
Domestic laws in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have outlawed the practice of dedicating Devadasis and deemed previous dedications unlawful. The Acts penalise all persons performing, participating in or abetting the performance of Devadasi dedications. Unfortunately, the Karnataka law also penalises females who are being dedicated, even though they do not meaningfully consent or are not of legal age to give consent. Thus penalization further entrenches their oppression. Only the Karnataka law requires the institution of a rehabilitation programme including counselling, training and access to credit for rescued Devadasis. The rehabilitation programme has been running but its effectiveness is questionable. There is little awareness of the programme and it fails to provide adequate economic, medical and legal support for reintegration of women and girls fleeing the system. It is unknown how many Devadasis have been successfully rehabilitated.
The Indian central government considers the Devadasi system to be an issue of policing and public order. This classification entrenches the system in two ways. First, by regarding the Devadasi system as a matter of ‘policing’ and ‘public order’, the Indian government fails to account for the social, economic and religious factors that perpetuate the Devadasi system. The system continues because it is religiously sanctioned, allows economic exploitation, preys on landless Dalits and gives upper-caste men control over the bodies and sexualities of Dalit females. Second, under the scheme of distribution of powers in the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution, all matters relating to policing and public order become the responsibility of state governments. Consequently, there are no uniform laws, policies or welfare programs in the country to protect Devadasis.
In 2015, the central government issued an advisory to all state governments to strictly implement the law prohibiting the Devadasi system and conduct identification surveys to rescue Devadasis. However, the advisory merely lists counselling, medical treatment, “guidance, support and motivation to lead a dignified life” as rehabilitation for Devadasis who are landless, illiterate and marginalised. Apart from enacting a central law, the Indian government needs to implement a rehabilitation policy that will provide financial assistance, wage employment, low-cost housing unit, agricultural land, education, counseling and skill development to rescued Devadasis (as with the case of marginalised rescued bonded labourers).
Furthermore, government authorities, such as those of Tamil Nadu, must stop denying the insidious practice of the Devadasi system. Extensive identification and rescue drives must be conducted with the assistance of trained and sensitised members of the Dalit community. Special measures need to be adopted to provide education to the children of Devadasis to help their families escape the cycle of marginalisation and poverty. Simultaneously, the State needs to make larger consistent efforts to tackle the oppression of the Dalit community.