Tipamma, one of several Devadasi women that The Hindu reporter interviewed for their recent article, has a cynical attitude towards the prospects for change for women like her. Without the willingness to ‘confront the people and systems that caused us this state of affairs’ and to ‘challenge the powerful’, she believes that their is a long way to go before policy turns into practice.
At Pratigya, we are trying to do just that: our legal work is starting to pay dividends when it comes to genuinely enforcing the law in Andhra Pradesh, where dedication of women to the goddess Yelamma is prohibited under the 1988 Yogini Act. However, as The Hindu‘s article also points out, part of the problem is that the very people suffering from the continued practice of ritualized prostituion are not even themselves aware of the entitlements that they have under law: ‘the women in Holagallu haven’t even heard of any of these [benefits] clearly indicating loopholes in the implementation of the welfare measures.’
Through the creation of locally-based Jogini committees, staff at Pratigya have been able to teach the women about their rights, as well as to assist them in applying for benefits such as micro-finance loans, employment or training schemes, housing loans and ration cards. In turn, the members of the Joginis committees have become empowered as leaders within their communities, able to educate others in their villages of the dangers of dedicating their daughters into the life of a Devadasi, as well as the illegality of the practice. Others have started their own businesses and some are now standing for positions in local government.
However, of course Tipamma does have a point: until people from other castes start to empathise with the plight of the Dalit community, exploitation (such as that which the Devadasi system represents) will continue. Even with legal prohibition, the dedications of underage girls continues, often in an ‘underground’ fashion. As the journalist writes, ‘Conversation with some of these women indicates that it is possible that influential people from the higher castes may pay the Devadasi to… select a certain girl they fancy for dedication.’
Until attitudes change, the ‘solidarity’ which Tipamma is so pessimistic about may well prove elusive. However, it is greater understanding of the true circumstances in which they are forced to live, blighted by poverty, illiteracy and illness, that will lead to this understanding. Articles like this one in prestigious national newspapers like The Hindu can only serve to help.