Devadasi: A Life Without Education

The outlawed tradition of 'devdasi' which sanctions religious prostitution continues in rural Maharashtra. Rohini had heard about 'devdasi', or temple slaves when she was growing up, but it wasn't common in her parents' village. Temple slavery is an institutionalised form of religious prostitution, where mostly young girls from backward castes and poor families are given away or 'married' to the local deity. Priests, feudal lords and high caste men are served by these women, who are known as  'god's servants' - they are not allowed to marry or have children. This tradition was outlawed in 1988 and is slowly disappearing, but in many parts of India continues to exist. In her video, Rohini profiles a 13-year-old devdasi called Priyanka. A friend of Rohini's husband is a cable television dealer and is the one who introduced Rohini to them. "Priyanka has never been to school and doesn't know a single letter of the alphabet," Rohini told us. The women were unwilling to speak openly on camera, "stop asking us such questions," they said. When she was shooting the dancing, the women and the musicians thought she was recording footage to accompany religious hymns for a music CD. "I felt really bad for these women. I always thought there was something divine and respectful about them. But after talking to them I realized it is nothing like that," Rohini said. It is usually parents who cannot conceive who make the promise to dedicate their child to God should they be granted one. So, usually temple slaves are single children and take on the burden of supporting their families with the money they make from dancing at various religious festivals and prostitution. When they are five years old, they are sent to accompany troupes of devdasis so that they can learn the songs and dances. Rohini related, "One woman was an  only daughter and she started crying - she said, why did my parents leave me? Was I a burden?" As they get older, it is harder for them to make money through prostitution and so they do housework and other errands for the priests and wealthy men in the village. "Imagine a woman who has a husband, no one would dare approach them…but these women are alone, they have no support system. So they are used in this way," said Rohini. Priyanka loves dancing. One of Rohini's neighbors had entered their child into the Sa Ri Ga Ma reality TV dance show programme, and Rohini wants to try to do the same for Priyanka. "If they went to school, or did stitching classes, there might be another option for them to make money. But now no one helps them."
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