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How The Caste System Forces Dalit Women Into Prostitution

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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.

You must be to comment.

    This is what the upper caste want to restore it……
    I learned that if a lower caste(peasant) wants to marry. He must present his “would be” to landlord(Higher caste).
    Still after submitting her, he must wait for landlords approval(for his marriage with her).
    if he didn’t get it , he must look for another….

  2. D Gill

    Why don’t we just call this what it is, trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. How can this exist in this day and age? Slap the word religious, deity, auspicious to any shit and for some reason people find it acceptable. Religious dudes are allowed to roam naked and it’s acceptable, yet a woman in a mini skirt and everyone loses their minds.

    Religion…. SICKENING.

  3. VIK

    Dalit drama always sells……

  4. Condition of Hindu Women in India – VedKaBhed.Com

    […] 90 percent of sex workers’ daughters in India follow their mothers into the same profession.   Worship of naked girls in south Indian temples abuse, slavery: NHRC These girls are […]

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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