How The Caste System Forces Dalit Women Into Prostitution

Posted on June 10, 2015 in Sex Work, Society, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Kabir Sharma

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 about 20 paramours for her 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 institutionalised discrimination of lower caste women by upper caste men, all across India and South East Asia. There are many examples of unfair practices 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 upper caste men.

At times, priests convince the parents that dedicating their daughters would help family members be reborn as 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 families by paying for the girl’s dedication as a devadasi in exchange for spending the first few nights with her.

When priests and other upper caste men sleep with a devadasi, they claim it is the goddess’ desires that 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.

Older devadasi women are often seen sitting around temples begging, their health in a 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. 90 percent of sex workers’ daughters in India follow their mothers into the same profession.

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. And if a child was born, only the mother would be responsible for its upbringing. Today, many of these performers are moving to beer bars in Bombay and Dubai, as possibility of other work is poor, and money is more in the cities.

This abuse still thrives not only in our country but in neighbouring countries as well. The daughter of an ‘untouchable’ Dalit Badi woman in Nepal is required to be registered under the surname ‘Nepali’ at birth. She is then expected to follow her mother into prostitution. Many of them come to Mumbai and Kolkata for this, since society allows no alternatives.

According to Sono Khangharani, 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.”

The story is similar in Bangladesh too. “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 are made to remember their birth in the market as well as in the temple; through the only thing they have that society needs – their bodies.