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The Devadasi System- which is complete violation of human rights

Devadasi is a woman who is considered given in marriage to God. These women dedicated to God once held high social status and were well respected. But now they are nothing more than sex slaves.

The Devadasi System- which is complete violation of human rights
Image: (L) – The Modern Rationalist; (R) – Cargo Support

By- Pragya Uike

India is a land of cultures and traditions. We proudly used to recite the pledge in our schools that…I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage…But sometimes, it outrages me that in the world of science and technology and human rights, there are many things, specially religious traditions which are in complete violation of human rights, constitutional principles, moral principles and the goals upon which the future of the country lies. One such tradition is – The Devadasi System.

This tradition can be traced back to as early as 7 th century during the reigns of Cholas, Chelas and Pandyas. This was mainly present in southern parts of India. But various newspapers suggest that traces can still be found. Devadasi, literally means “Servant of God”. In this practice, young girls, specially from the “lower castes” are married to an idol, deity or temple. This is done by their parents or guardians themselves to appease the gods. First of all, this marriage on its own is wrong because it is a case of marriage before the age of consent! But the worst part is – Once they attain puberty, they become “wife” of the whole town. Meaning thereby, anyone can exploit them sexually. According to the tradition, the girl is sold to the highest bidder and she serves him till the time he wants her. She is then abandoned to beg in the streets or in front of temples or to be bought again by another men. The younger the girl, the higher is her chances to be sold. They live as sex slaves and are forbidden from marrying anyone. As of 2006, the National Commission for Women estimated that there were 48,358 devadasis in India. But we should not forget that this was only an estimate!

Why do they step into this vicious cycle?

In its annual report of 2015-16, the National Commission for Women stated that this initially started out as a religious practice of a woman devotee WILLINGLY connecting herself to God. Earlier, those women were highly respected.

But nowadays, they are FORCED into this practice by inducing fear in their minds in the name of god. And as mentioned earlier, most of them belong to lower strata of the community, they are also forced to enter into this practice by way of appeasement for giving several benefits like – Monetary benefits, taking care of her and her parents, shelter, clothing, food etc. Some even indulge in this practice for an amount as meager as 30 or 40/-. Some even send their daughters on the belief that this will improve their social status.

Why is this practice heinous?

Besides, it being wrong at the very first place for marrying a young girl before her age of consent. It snatches away her childhood. It also leaves her to be exploited in the worst way possible. After that, she is left with nothing but to beg or be rejected by the society and face societal stigmas. Basically, her life becomes meaningless and hopeless. Besides that, she becomes vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases(STDs), specially – AIDS and other serious medical conditions like depression, suicidal tendencies etc.

Laws abolishing the Devadasi System

One of the very first law that came up to abolish this was The Bombay Devadasi Protection Act1934 and later the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act was passed in 1947. After that, many other states also passed laws to abolish this –

Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982; Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1989; Goa Children’s Act, 2003; Maharashtra Devadasi System (Abolition) Act, 2006

Apart from that, this is in total contravention of S. 370, 370A, 372,373, 375 of the Indian Penal Code and also with the provisions of Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

Devadasi System from a Constitutional and Human Rights Perspective.

This practice is in blatant violation of the constitutional principles like Article 23 (Prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labour), Right to Life (Article 21) which includes Right to live with dignity (Maneka Gandhi V. Union of India), Right Against Torture, Right to Health, Right to Humane condition of living etc. Article 21 gives the widest spectrum of rights to the victims and hence, it is very essential for devadasis.

Apart from that international documents like Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women(CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the child etc, to which India is also a signatory, guarantee human rights to them.

The above mentioned provisions do safeguard the rights of a victim. The constitutional provisions and human rights principles do guarantees a dignified life & a bright future but all these things remain only in pages. The mentality of the Indian Society doesn’t allow her to even try to forget the ghosts of her past. The girl and her family do not report these things out of fear and because they don’t wish to “highlight” their name in the society. Most of them are forced into prostitution and since the prostitution is illegal in our country, those who are forcefully brought into that profession, can’t even report about it!

The government must take some positive steps for their empowerment by giving them employment, education facilities, medical aid, counseling etc. Abolishing it is not enough. As, already stated, they mostly belong to the lower strata of the society. This shows yet another instance of the disgraceful caste system and poverty in India. Why does this happen mostly with them? Why do government schemes not reach to them? Why people become so superstitious that they agree to do anything? Why do people forget the basic human rights? These are some of the questions which we must ponder upon and we will get to know the gravity of this situation. 

This system is so bad that I’m falling short of words to condemn it. The worst part is that it still happens, though not openly. I urge the government to take immediate steps because it is the need of the hour but at the same time, I would also urge the people to show some compassion and change mentality towards them, not only devadasis, but also towards rape victims, sexual harassment victims etc. in fact towards the women in general. I also urge everyone to report these crimes and not remain silent.

Editors Note- This article written by Pragya Uike.  A Law Student from Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU)

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