Devadasis are dedicated to a goddess from as young as five years old. When they reach puberty, they are forced into a lifetime of ritual sex slavery. It is a form of prostitution sanctioned by religious practice – in effect, ritualised. It is sometimes known as temple prostitution. Different names are used in different areas, including ‘Jogini’, ‘Basivini’ and ‘Matamma’. All these practices are outlawed, but they still go on. Almost all those trapped in ritual sex slavery are Dalits.
Property of the village
After she reaches puberty the girl is given to an elder in the village – a priest, rich man or landowner. She will become the concubine of that elder until he is fed up with her – whether that is after one night or several years. The girl then becomes the ‘property of the village’ to be used and abused by any man. Sometimes they will be trafficked to a brothel where they are ‘broken in’.
The poverty and superstition that forced the parents to dedicate their child also play a powerful part in keeping the girl in ritual sex slavery. Since the goddess brings good fortune, many believe that becoming a Devadasi or Jogini will bring good luck not just to the girl, but to her family and village. Women will tell their husbands to use a Devadasi or Jogini to bring good luck to their own marriage and family.
Devadasis and Joginis are particularly vulnerable to violence at the hands of clients and pimps alike, and to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. The stigma of AIDS and worries about the cost of treatment means they will not seek diagnosis even when it is free. Many use alcohol as a coping mechanism, becoming adicted to drink.
“Official figures estimate some 40,000 Devadasi and Joginis, and claim the number is falling. NGOs working on the ground believe that dedications have been forced underground and are now conducted secretly. They claim there may be as many as 250,000 women caught up in the practice in the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.”
Ritual Sex Slavery in India