take a good look at these faces. these are the faces of change.
these three girls were dedicated in their village temples as devadasis and faced a life of religiously sanctioned sexual violence and ridicule, but now they are preparing themselves to be part of a front-line attack on the devadasi system that would have enslaved them. who better to advocate for the abolishment of the devadasi system than those who have been directly affected by it!
i met the girls when i visited visthar academy of justice and peace studies in bangalore. the campus is not far from my friend ravi’s house, and when i contacted the director, david selvaraj, wanting to learn more about visthar, he graciously invited me to lunch.
visthar is a secular, non-profit organization committed to enabling women, children, and other marginalized sections realize their rights (visthar.org). it’s also a highly regarded academic institution that partners with organizations in india and around the world, training people to work for a just society.
in fact for you minnesotans, visthar partners with gustavus adolphus college and concordia college to facilitate semester-long study-abroad programs in social justice, peace, and development -- so if you know anyone at gustavus or concordia, encourage them to check out this life-changing opportunity!
as i sat with david for a few minutes before lunch, he explained that the term “temple prostitute” widely used for devadasis doesn’t really describe the situation but that “temple slave” was more accurate. he said that the devadasi system is a religiously sanctioned “gross violence against women,” and even though the system has been outlawed in india since 1992, it is “still alive and kicking.”
as coordinator sham khalil later explained, visthar wanted to go beyond the academic study of social transformation and get on the ground, in the villages, and create a place for change. so they envisioned a holistic home for devadasi girls and called it bhandavi, which means friendship.
it was 2003 when they teamed up with a number of ngos in india who had a presence in many villages in karnataka and andra pradesh where the devadasi system is prevalent.
sham himself went to live in one of the 150 targeted villages. they call it capacity building, and instead of trying to change the entire village and its deeply entrenched religious practice, visthar reached out to the maaji devadasis (devadasis who have been put on the shelf) in a leadership development program. this program worked to instill the concepts of human rights to these women and empower them to say no to the system and yes to a better life for their daughters.
sham told me that the villagers didn’t want him there and didn’t like what he was doing. more than once he was chased down the street and told, “we will finish you off!”
in 2005, after much work in the villages, the mothers of a few young devadasis were brave enough and strong enough to let their daughters go to bandhavi. after many tears of parting, the two girls on the left in the photo above came to bandhavi. they were the first! they were just ten years old.
here’s what one of the girls at bandhavi wrote:
My journey to Bandhavi
Where do I begin? My grandmother had already
dedicated me to the goddess Huligamma. I am a
new sacrifice to the Jogithi, or Devadasi system.
My family is waiting with hope and dreams for
me so I can earn for them. The rich people in my
village want a new sacrifice. I had no hope of
being freed from this situation because my father
is sick, my mother is helpless and I have younger
siblings. So I had decided to accept my fate.
At this time the women’s group in my village
spoke to my family about Bandhavi but they did
not want to send me. It was very difficult for me
to leave my family. But I had to decide quickly
or the cunning people in my village would force
my parents to sacrifice me to a wicked practice.
A new life was calling me and I made the
decision. This is an important turning point in
my life. My dreams for the future can come true
because this new life is god’s reward to me.
- Renuka, 14 years old
now bandhavi has seventy girls in the program, which nurtures individual growth, freedom, and dignity and is a “community that lives in love, respect, trust, and friendship.” the girls are creative, joyful, loving, and powerful!
and for the girls who want to build a career helping create the capacity for change in villages like their own, visthar has created a community college social work program. the girls will become trained professionals and be paid a salary to go back to the villages, instill human rights, and empower the women and girls and train them as leaders, and save more girls from the devadasi system.