Beads of Bondage
Imagine the delight of the little girl – we’ll call her Manjula – at the gift of a necklace. The red and white beads are very beautiful. It’s a lovely party – lots of joy and celebration. But the significance of the ceremony completely passes her by, as does the significance of the beads she wears. She’s told that she is special, but that’s not the way she is treated by some.
There is no way that her parents, given how poor they are, will ever be able to afford the loan they would need for a marriage dowry, so what better way than to marry Manjula to the goddess? Now she will never have to marry a man.
[girls for sale]
As soon as Manjula reaches puberty, her virginity is sold. Manjula doesn’t remember anything about it: she was drugged. And after this sordid first sexual experience forced against her will, Manjula is taken from her village to the city. She finds herself in a brothel where she will be ‘broken in’ for the next six months, And if she refuses, and if the threat – and use – of physical and emotional violence is not enough, they just get her drunk or drug her. Eventually she will resign herself to a life of prostitution - prostitution that is seemingly justified by ritual.
Now Manjula progresses to the truckers brothels on the main road through the state. She also finds herself working in her own village, pimped by one of her family members. She still wears the beads; she cannot take them off because she believes that will bring her bad luck.
And as she gets older, she struggles to earn a living. Working in the fields brings 50p a day, not enough for Manjula and her children...her children who are stigmatised because they do not have their father’s name. They do not even know their father. Manjula is trapped in prostitution. She is worried that she might have AIDS, but she won’t go for the voluntary testing because of the stigma of the disease. Even if she did, she could not afford to go to the hospital for the drugs she would need. And when she’s abused, Manjula has nowhere to turn – she doesn’t know her rights, and anyway she dare not enter the police station because she is a Dalit.
This is the life of a ‘Devadasi’. This is ritualised prostitution. It is nothing short of child abuse, the denial of a woman’s right to freedom, dignity and the choice of marriage, and the denial of a child’s right to a father’s name. This is typical of the lives of 250,000 women in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra in southern India, despite the practice of Devadasi being outlawed.
Devadasi come from three subcastes in particular - Holers, Madars and the Samnagars. They are all Dalits.
Banner photo: RACHEL ROBICHAUX. Used by kind permission.