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Thursday 19th July 2012 by Airavathi
I was invited to London, England, to take part in EveryChild’s 10th anniversary celebrations and to share my story about my life as a former Devadasi.
The practice of Devadasi is an ancient Indian custom where a girl is ceremoniously dedicated to serve the goddess Yellamma once they reach puberty. The practice is now illegal and has degenerated so that young, low-caste girls are being abused in the sex industry - it exists due to poverty and desperation.
After giving birth to four boys, my mother prayed to Yellamma for a girl, as we didn’t have much money. She vowed that if her wish came true, she would do as tradition dictated. So, when I was born, it was understood that I would be dedicated to Yellamma. Although my mother and brothers brought me up with love, my father did not care. Once my brothers got married, they forget about me and my mother. Our health deteriorated due to lack of food and proper care, so a priest told my mother to dedicate me.
After I was dedicated, we continued to work, until a few years later she passed away. Those days were difficult and it still makes me feel sad. I was 15 and I didn’t have any other option than to label myself as Devadasi. Not knowing what else to do, I starting living with a man, 15 years senior; he was already married with children. My relatives refused to let us to stay in my village, so we moved away. My partner built a mud house and I started working as an agricultural labourer and worshipping the Devadasi goddess. No one used to mingle with me due to my status. My partner took care of me and provided me with food, clothing and shelter. I now live with him and my children.
In our society, we are treated as outcastes. We are not allowed to participate in village meetings. We do not have the courage to demand our rights. Our identities are invisible. This is why I started to campaign for the abolition of this practice. Together with other Devadasi women, we’ve started an organisation called MASS, which is supported by EveryChild. MASS is a community based child rights organisation, where we train former Devadasis and motivate them to educate parents and the community to abolish this system.
As part of this honour, I travelled to the UK and met with MPs, schoolchildren and the media, to tell them about my journey. I also went to 10 Downing Street to deliver a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, outlining why children without parental care must be considered in the new development goals.
It was such a privilege to see where the Prime Minister lives; in India, we have to wait hours to see the chief minister of Karnataka and I would certainly never be able to go to his house.
When we arrived, I knocked on the door and a policeman answered. He certainly didn’t look like the Prime Minister, so I told him that I wanted to go inside and deliver the letter myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to proceed any further, however the policeman assured me that Mr Cameron would see it.
After I’d delivered letter, I felt I’d done what I came to the UK to do. It is so important to raise awareness of children without parental care. I grew up without the love and support of my parents and I’ve experienced the consequences it can have first-hand. Without a family structure in place, children are subjected to social and cultural stigmatisation and are denied access to education, social services and proper healthcare. They run a higher risk of HIV/AIDS infection, abuse and exploitation. If we don’t help these children, they will not have a future.
I, along with other Devadasi women in India, believe that if countries work together and look after their children, they too will have the opportunity to build a better future... they might just have the potential to become future leaders one day, too.