The fabric of our society is what shapes us. Traditions and cultures of our ancestors can shape our future. In some societies, some old practices had held people and even communities back from progress. In the village of Mainahalli near Koppal, India, a large portion of its communities belong to the lower caste system. Some members of these communities are Devadasis. These are women and girls who engage in sex work as their livelihood, following an age old tradition.
This tradition had alluded 21-year-old Vandana for a certain period of time despite her grandmother being a Devadasi. Vandana’s mother was also able to make their ends meet through agricultural labour despite being the sole breadwinner of the family.
Such life took a turn when Vandana’s father had developed an illness a long time ago. Vandana’s grandmother had prayed to the community’s deity to relieve her son from the illness, in return of dedicating Vandana as a Devadasi. A dedication is a religious ceremony conducted in a temple after which the girl becomes available for sex work. Her mother also believed that income from Vandana’s sex work would reduce her own burdens of earning for the family.
After the grandmother’s recent death, Vandana’s mother wanted to fulfill her mother in law’s wish and dedicate her daughter as a Devadasi when she was still a child. “I was distressed when preparations for my dedication began. I was helpless and under a lot of pressure. I really wanted to write my Pre University Exam (PUC) and hopefully go to college for my higher education. But I couldn’t go against my mother. There was nobody I could share my problems with”, said Vandana.
Under Terre des Hommes Netherlands’ Child Empowerment for GOOD project, girls from Devadasi communities were identified and grouped into Kishori clubs where they were trained on child rights, life skills, and advocacy. Identification was done through research, observation, monitoring, and enquiry. There were 26 girls that were identified and were grouped into a Kishori club named Saraswathi Kishori Group. After being grouped into clubs, household visits were then conducted with each child to learn more about their personal situation. Each girl was also given personal attention and care so that she could express her problems.
Vandana was one among the 26 and was identified in December 2019. During a personal discussion with Vandana, she shared her problems on the upcoming dedication and her helpless situation. The project staff then visited Vandana’s house and counselled her mother to not dedicate her child. She was also warned on the legal actions that could be taken against her if she dedicated her child. It took three to four household visits and counselling sessions to convince Vandana’s mother to stop the dedication.
Vandana participates in all the meetings and training programmes. With support from the project, Vandana has also written her PUC exam. Her participation in activities has inspired her to take teaching as a profession. While she awaits her PUC results, she is busy planning her career as a teacher. Her mother is now supportive of her, thanks to the counselling sessions with the project staff where she was taught the importance of education in giving a child a better life.
She aims to change her community's traditions that have negatively affected many girls. Vandana advocates against social issues in her village by writing problems on the community notice board, making posters, and spreading awareness. She and other Kishori girls spend a lot of time together playing games, discussing their future, and solving problems in their village.
Vandana said, “Earlier, I had lost all hope towards having a normal life. I am now very confident in fighting against sexual exploitation through the Devadasi system. The knowledge I gained on child protection services such as ChildLine, child welfare committees, district child protection units, and child protection acts will help me make a change in my village”.
The biggest change in Vandana’s life is that she is no longer vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Previously filled with helplessness, she now has hope and dreams of a bright future with a chance to achieve higher education and a fulfilling career. After spending more time in the Kishori Group, she has become very active and brims with enthusiasm.
Vandana’s mother is now more supportive towards Vandana’s dreams and has given her permission to pursue her higher education. She has realised that dedicating her child as a Devadasi is a wrong step. The mother still works as an agricultural labourer. The family’s livelihood has been affected because of COVID-19. The project has been supporting the family with supply of food essentials along with linking Vandana’s mother to MGNREGA for additional livelihood opportunities.
“I am planning to go to a Teachers Training programme as I look after my mother. As a teacher, I can reach many children and their families and help protect girl children from all kinds of exploitation”, Vandana ended.