Breaking free from Devadasi tradition

NGO

The name Bandhavi can mean a young woman who has a strong bond with her family or community or a girl who forges close friendships.

Of course, it can be a variant of these interpretations. But in the case of Visthar, a well known non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Dodda Gubbi, towards the north-east of Bangalore, it is an initiative for the social advancement and personal protection of girls at risk of being forced into the Devadasi system. 

According to Nazar P S, a project co-ordinator at Visthar, girls continue to be “dedicated” to Goddess Yellamma in Koppal (north Karnataka) and Adoni (Andhra Pradesh) districts. Historically, Devadasis (servants of God) were supposed to have an honourable social status. However, that became an inhuman tradition that made sex slaves of women whom their families pledged at a tender age to the village deity.  

Mothers and daughters

It is important to note that, at present, women compelled into the Devadasi system are often Dalits from low-income families. Suramma, Amba Devi, Mariamma, Gangamma and Jhansi from Koppal are among the victims of this anachronistic practice. Now, they are all between 35 and 40 years old and are agricultural labourers.

Fortunately, their young daughters have been spared from being consumed by the terrible Devadasi tradition due to Visthar's intervention. But as many are still vulnerable, field workers of Visthar first safeguard them locally and facilitate their transition into the Bandhavi programme. 

“She is safe and fine there,” said Gangamma, of her daughter Durgamba who is eleven. Durgamba is one of the hundred odd girls who is benefiting from the Bandhavi project.

“Visthar cares for her a lot and provides her various opportunities and comforts,” Gangamma added. Fourteen-year-old Jaya’s mother Amba Devi chipped in, “It is better for my girl to be at Visthar. When I miss her, I talk to her over phone. If possible, I visit her. I like the campus and the warmth of the people. I wish I could live there.”  

That Gangamma, Amba Devi and women such as them are certain about their children’s well-being reiterates Visthar’s vital contribution. Sham Khalil is the programme co-ordinator of Sasive, an activity of Visthar that forms collectives for the social, economic and political empowerment of Devadasi women in Koppal district while Shylaja handles their training and other needs. Shylaja and Khalil explained the challenges in ensuring that the girls are not trapped by the Devadasi system.  

Benefits of Bandhavi

Girls in the Bandhavi programme get free residential accommodation, nutritious food, healthcare and all-round education either at the verdant Visthar campus in Dodda Gubbi or the recently refurbished centre in Koppal. Most of the children are aged between eight and sixteen although a few are younger or older. They all study in  government schools in Kadusonnappanahalli, Dodda Gubbi or Koppal.

Teachers at Visthar tutored the Bandhavi girls who joined some years back to bring them at par with their peers in school. These teachers now help the school goers to cope with the rigours of their lessons. 

Apart from academic learning, Visthar exposes the Bandhavi girls to human rights awareness, clay modelling, drawing, painting, music and dancing.  Steven Theen, a talented artist in Visthar’s paper-making unit and visiting volunteers guide the girls in art activities. Theen opined, “Many of the children such as Sangita, Gracy and Radhika are creative by nature. They only need encouragement and openings.”
  
The older Bandhavi girls participate in tasks associated with baking and farming during weekends and holidays.  They also manage Namma Angadi, a store that sells essentials for students enrolled in different short term residential courses (on peace, gender, social justice and development) at Visthar. These activities inculcate a sense of responsibility and ownership in the girls. They also provide skills that will be useful when they return to their homes or seek employment. 

“Rani must study well and secure a good job. She must stand on her own feet”, her mother Suramma expressed, full of hope for her fifteen year old. She comes here during summer.

“Other children, especially, the younger girls in the neighbourhood and extended family want to go to Visthar. They are very keen to spend time or even live there. Thirteen-year-old Gracy’s mother Mariamma told me, “I did not have any chance to get educated.

But I am happy that my daughter is doing well. She must find proper employment.”   Rati Shetty and Savitha, house parents at Visthar, play a very important role in the lives of the Bandhavi girls. They are the children's trusted confidantes, affectionate caregivers and gentle disciplinarians.

“Rati and Savitha madam and Nazar sir are more like friends to us. And so are the visiting akkas (elder sisters) and annas (older brothers) who tell us stories,” echo Deepa, Kantamma, Sheetal and their friends.

Akin to kids their age, they are playful, mischievous and enjoy watching movies and cricket. But they are aware of their mothers’ experiences, have witnessed threats from people in their native villages and realise that they must become self-reliant. These are the primary objectives that two of Visthar’s committed co-founders, Mercy Kappen and David Selvaraj and their team are striving towards for the Bandhavi girls to counter the Devadasi evil.

(Names of the women in Koppal and their daughters have been changed to protect identity.)

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