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Devadasi Initiation Among Girls India Health And Social Care Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Health And Social Care
Wordcount: 5402 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The paper focuses on female devadasi (temple prostitutes) children in north Karnataka state of India and the provision of support to integrate devadasi girls into the community and improve their psychosocial situation. The paper is designed broadly with cultural practices being taken into consideration and with a community participatory approach to achieve the goal.

The objectives of the paper are:

Community participation to integrate current devadasi girls into regular community life.

Community participation to avoid future initiation of young girls into the devadasi system

Meeting the psychosocial needs through health, counseling and economical needs of devadasi girls in the community

Assistance to devadasi girls as an alternative to devadasi service in the community.

The activities include key community members participation and women’s local self help groups (SHP) networking to support existing devadasi girls to overcome stigma, social discrimination through cleansing rituals and organizing vocational training skills to enhance economic status. Other activities are the integration of primary health care services to these girls and also extending counseling services on sexual health and behavioral practices and also to introduce a micro credit system to existing devadasi girls.

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The paper draws its conceptual framework from ‘child rights convention’. The paper also uses a psychosocial working group framework to provide comprehensive strategies to address community complexities while implementing the program. A community participatory approach has been to adopt, in order to build a sustainable strategy to provide the psychosocial needs of the girls initiated into devadasi services especially in north Karnataka state in India where it is prevalent.

2. Introduction

2.1 What is Devadasi?, the term devadasi derives from the Sanskrit language, ‘deva’ means God, ‘dasi’ means servant (Goswami 2000). Devadasis are female children dedicated to goddesses through marriage to a deity. After the marriage ceremony they become deities’ wives and continue to perform the traditionally decided duties such as dancing, sexual services to the temple patrons and to the priests (Tarachand 1991). As per O’Neil (2004) the tradition of devadasi is predominantly seen in south India and is popularly known as ‘temple dancers’, the young girls are dedicated to a village temple god through marriage. They may function as servants at village temples once they attain the age of maturity [2] . Traditionally they are expected to perform dancing combined with other local artistic functions with sexual services to patrons and priests of the temple (O’Neil 2004).

2.2 History of Devadasi System

Observing recordings of the term devadasi in local language, the beginning of the devadasi system traced back to 1113 A.D. at Alanahalli village of Karnataka state, (Shankar, 1990). The devadasi system continues to be practiced in the majority of villages in certain provinces of India.

In the late 19th Century, the colonial government system imposed several pieces of repressive legislation for wider social reforms. During this period the Devadasis position in the society changed marginally. However, the devadasi system continues to exist because of the deep socially embedded ritual of marriage to God (Levine 1994).

With the advent of the Karnataka legislation act 1982 to ban ‘Devadasis prohibition of dedication’, the devadasis moderately lost their position of socio-religious status in the society. Nevertheless, significant features of the system persist (Orchard 2007). According to UNICEF (2001) the devadasi prostitution system still continues with religious sanctity in India. The devadasi system (popularly known as temple prostitution) allows the sexual exploitation of young girls by the temple patrons and priests in the name of dedicating such young girls to a God. The religious Devadasi is a form of prostitution continues in southern India (UNICEF 2001).

2.3 Problem Analysis

Currently, the devadasi life initiation and practice is largely consistent with the past traditional system. The initiation of a young girl’s dedication to God begins at around 6-9 years old (Neil 2004). Tarachad (1991) states that the initiation ceremony into devadasi typically begins around the age of 5 and 10 years. However, they become devadasis (practice of devadasi service) after puberty to avoid unwanted pregnancies or because of their family’s circumstances (Tarachand 1991).

In the majority of the villages the devadasis are not allowed to participate in auspicious ceremonies. The discrimination, social exclusion, the stigma of temple prostitutes and the attitude of the community have forced current devadasis in Karnatka state (India) not to engage in alternate profession (O’Neil 2004). The majority of the devadasis in Karnataka state (India) continue to live in their native villages, where they are degraded by low socio-economic, low caste (untouchables) status coupled with the profession they are in and typically the devadasis usually live separately within larger village communities (Orchard 2007).

The reasons for the dedication of the girl child to temple services vary from place to place; however, common reasons identified were: one girl per devadasi family is supposed to be initiated into the system, which is an unwritten rule; an absence of a male child for the family; to please deities during grave sickness or drought, or as a boon to a deity for a particular prayer (Tarachand 1991).

The list of possible reasons is given in table No.1

Table no.1

Following are some of the reasons cited for dedication, or parents force to push their girls into a life of prostitution and misery in the name of dedication.

1. Being a blind, a deaf or a dumb or a crippled girl

2. Well being of the family

3. No male issue in the family

4. Mother was a devadasi

5. Only female child in the family

6. Following previous generations

7. Poverty

8. Father had undergone an operation and vowed to fulfill this as a promise

9. It was a religious ritual

10. To appease Gods for the well-being of the family

11. Father’s brother made her a devadasi

Source: National Commission for Women 2002, India.

Despite the legal implications of the most recent initiative into devadasi system, ceremonies take place in backdoor settings, typically conducted by priests extracting considerable amounts of money for the ceremony service (Tarachand 1991).

Although, the devadasi system continues as a combination of cultural practices, socio-economic status, local political views, historical religious belief and ritualized role in the society. Nevertheless, devadasis are forced to undertake their current profession to meet the daily economic requirements of personal and family members. For example, older devadasi women or mothers of girl, typically announce the girl’s sexual maturity [3] to attract potential customers for the ‘first ceremony’. Since it is the first ceremony the Devadasi mother charges more fees (ranging from 1,500-15,000Rs/ 19-150£), gold gifts and other wealth is given to the girl’s family in advance of the ceremony (O’Neil 2004). Blachard et al. (2005) also states that 75.6 % of devadasis confirms that more than half of their income generated from sex work (Blachard et al.2005). This shows that the devadasi system continued to exist primarily because of economic threat and social exclusion to join other profession by the particular identified community, have possibly forced to continue in the devadasi system.

3. Policy concern

The background information on devadasi system in India shows the intricacies and challenges to unite devadasi girl children into normal community life. However, pragmatic efforts are essential to integrate devadasi initiated girl children into community life to bring down physical health, emotional, psychosocial consequences.

3.1 Magnitude of the problem

The number of devadasis dedications and the total of davadasi girls in north Karnataka is difficult to obtain because: most of the traditional devadasi sex work is now home-based in rural village, the girl continues to serve where she resides; there are also some methodological inconsistencies to estimate; the legal implications of admitting the status; and the stigma of discrimination when disclosing this to outsiders. However, recent estimate have identified that approximately 1,000 -10,000 young girls are introduced into the devadasi system annually in India (Giri 1999; Chakraborthy 2000). The latest available official figure for the key districts in Karnataka state (India) is around 23,000 (NCW 2002; KSWDC 2007).

Current number of Devadasis in Karnataka state with district wise Table No.2,

Table No.2: Showing number of Devadasi – Karnataka

District No.

1 Koppal ………………………………..4886

2 Bagalokot……………………………. 4804

3 Belgaum …………………………… 3600

4 Raichur ……………………………… 2494

5 Bijapur ………………………………..1964

6 Bellary ………………………………..1635

7 Gadag ……………………………… . 1471

8 Gulbarga …………………………… ..991

9 Haveri ………………………………… 617

10 Dharwad …………………………….. 481

Total 22943

Source: Karnataka State women’s Development Corporation,

As mentioned in ‘Women Devadasi in, Jogini and Mathamma in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh states, Southern India,ritual slavery’.2007. Maggie Black Anti-Slavery International 2007. Available from


3.2 Effects devadasi system on girl children

Psychosocial: The imaginary wives of the God are excluded socially, stigmatized morally, and coupled with widowhood. All these factors may lead devadasis to feel depressed and may manifest itself with abnormal changes in their behavioural pattern. Over a period of time they are likely to suffer from psycho-somatic disorders and may live unnoticed in the community (Kersenboom 1987).

Psychosomatic: Young girls’ reproductive function before growth results in stunted skeletal growth, high risk of obstructed labor, and can lead to vesico- vesico or vesico anal fistula, and infection. The health risks are further multiplied by poor nutritional and health support from the family and community. The growth spurt at the adolescent age is further reduced by inadequate nutrition and psychological stress may lead to psychosomatic disorders, and these girls are likely to face 3 times higher complications compared to older women (Harrison 1993). In short, young girls initiated into the Devadasi system are potentially at high risk of becoming victims of health and psychological stress factors.

According to a recent survey, in Karnataka state, 26% of female sex workers are entering into sex work In Karnataka through the devadasi system. Most of them are now struggling to develop healthy sexual practices, grappling with the stigma of their profession, HIV and other STDs (O’Neil 2004).

Community participation is essential as the devadasi system is deeply embedded in the culture of the community, simultaneously efforts have to be made to build confidence, self esteem, and economic status among devadasi initiated girls. Therefore the paper proposes to focus on psychosocial, health, educational and economic issues.

4. Conceptual framework

4.1 Psycho social working group (PWG) framework

As mentioned in the situation analysis the integration of devadasis into the community is a complex social and cultural issue. The paper plans to adopt the psychosocial working group framework (PWG 2003) which provides comprehensive tools to design the program as follows.

The psychosocial working group defines psychosocial well-being in three main areas:

Human capacity

Social ecology

Culture and values

The program challenges in the field could be effectively tackled by a balanced approach of each core area of the framework. Further consequences may be tackled by:

Economic resources (micro credit system etc)

Physical resources (primary health care)

Using the framework the paper’s interventions are planned to improve the resilience of existing devadasi adolescent girls and community participation to prevent future occurrences of such devadasi ceremonies.

4.2 Children’s rights approach

The paper proposes to facilitate and integrate the children’s rights as guiding principles to implement the program. The paper’s activities will see obstacles to the children’s rights as one of key reasons forcing female children to undergo life long stress through ritualized marriage to deities. In the best interest of the child the paper incorporates the child development model from children’s rights convention which includes their physical, psychological, social and emotional development.

The Children’s Rights Convention is an expression of the essential role of health and psychological, emotional and developmental needs of children. In this context the constitution of the World Health Organization states that:

“health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease … [that] healthy development of the child is of basic importance; the ability to live harmoniously in a changing total environment is essential to such development … [and that] governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures”

-Preamble of the Constitution of the World Health Organization

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is uniquely positioned to use human rights instruments to implement and help the child to progress (physical/mental/psychological/ social/emotional). The paper plans to implement a children’s rights based approach through community committees and key influencers in the society. The paper will focus on the three main principles of the Convention (UNHCHR 1989) as follows:

“… the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” (Article 3)

“… ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child” (Article 6)

“… shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” (Article 12)

Since the appropriate needs of female children can best be decided by the ‘child development model’ of the World Health Organization, (the model includes mental, physical, psychological, social, and emotional development), the paper proposes protecting the female children using a children’s rights based approach with the child development model as the basic requirement for dealing with the psychosocial issues through community appraisal.

4.3 The Health Basis of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

The girl children are victims of the social cultural practice of devadasi system at a young age. Since they are vulnerable for various health issues (physical and psychosocial) appropriate primary health care and counseling services are essential. The paper will utilize the ‘health basis of the convention on the rights of the child’ (article 24) to provide primary health care needs. Article (24) addresses the right to “necessary medical assistance and health care to all children with emphasis on the development of primary health care….” (UNHCHR1989)

4.4 Article relevant to girl child

The articles relevant to girl child are as follows (Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989)

Article 19

1. take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

Article 34

States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent:

(a) The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;

(b) The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; (UNHCHR1989)

Article 34 specifically emphasizes the rights of the female child, not just all children. The paper plans to seek specific information about these girls; different ages, psychosocial status, health, educational status, morbidity indicators, specific diseases rates and seeking of counseling and health services.

4.5 Marriage

According to Article 1 a child means “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”(UNHCHR1989). Since marriage confers majority as a culturally defined age, the Articles of the Convention are not of much help. However, a legally [4] defined marriage age could be taken into consideration while implementing the activities as culturally defined ages range from 6-13 years (Tarachand 1991). In the Devadasi system girls are initiated to marry in the name of deity and so they are going to miss the protection under the children’s rights convention. Here activities could be designed so that the community intervenes in the backdoor settings of Devadasi ceremonies (Tarachand 1991), as once girls are initiated into the Devadasi system, there exists the threat of life time attachment of stigma to those girls, and physical and mental health problems stay with them.

4.6 Community participatory approach

Since the perpetuated devadasi (temple prostitute) system is ritualized, it is a difficult task to integrate devadasi initiated girls into the community. The paper demands active involvement of community leaders, religious heads, and women’s groups.

As the practice of the devadasi system is interwoven with religious worship and practice, there are several practical challenges likely to be encountered. The key challenges could be: a) a traditionally connected power system designed to continue the devadasis system; b) difficulties in initiating the paper activities with devadasi girls that are stigmatized; c) developing contacts, building trust with devadasis’ families and community; d) older devadasi women likely to exercise their power through the traditional structure of their life. To tackle all the issues systematically demands perseverance and commitment through community participation.

Thus community participatory approach is essential to the success of the paper activities. The paper plans to utilize local knowledge, and local community based organizations to connect with the community in order to execute the program. A community participatory approach will also helps to develop ownership of the program and to sustain the paper’s initiatives in the long run.

5. Interventions

5.1 Target Group

The current paper proposes to consider the Koppal and Bellary districts (Karnataka state India as shown in the map appendix 5) as they are geographically proximal and operationally feasible, and the researcher of the paper is familiar with the area and served for 4 years in these districts. The number of Devadasi in the Koppal district is 4886, while in the Bellary district it is 1621, so the program will be targeted at a total of 6521 devadasis in these two districts.

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5.2 Goal of the proposal

The overall goal of the paper is to enable the young girls and women of the devadasi system to cope with the psychosocial and physical health issues and the economic issues in their lives. Enabling them to overcome the traditional system of dedication of young girls to deities and integrating them into the existing social system in the community through community participation.

5.3 Overall Objectives and Activities (Interventions)

Appropriate interventions are essential, and use the cultural, social and economic context to empower devadasi girls to integrate themselves into the regular community life. The paper will necessarily focus on the behavioral, and healthy sexual practices needed to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Simultaneously community education is essential to help remove the stigma and to abandon the practice of the traditional system of blind faith to dedicate girl children to a deity.

5.4 Specific Objectives and Activities

Objective-1 Integration of devadasi girls into community life


There is a strong network of Self help groups (SHG) of women across the Bellary and Koppal districts of Karnataka state (India) as mentioned in Appendix-5. The paper plans to initiate networking exercises with local SHGs, collaborating with community based organization in the paper area and initiating advocacy and facilitating the participation of families and key community members in an attempt to merge devadasis into regular community life.

It will begin with a dialogue with temple priests and other key religious heads, to organize social purification rituals, and will encourage the community to participate in such ceremonies. The involvement of the community is likely to reduce the social stigma and discrimination, which indirectly support the psychosocial stress of devadasi girls.

Objective-2: Improve economic status of the Devadasi girls to strengthen resilience capacity.


There is already an ongoing job oriented training program at regular intervals to improve the skills of unemployed youths, run by district training centres through government social welfare schemes. Through formal communication to the social welfare department, efforts will be made to impart specific job oriented training programs to identified devadasi girls. The training will be customized in small groups to train in specific areas such as: tailoring, knitting clothes, weaving, candle making, envelope making, vegetable vending, and small provision shop management.

Depending on each devadasi girl’s interest and skills, a micro credit loan system will be introduced for economic self sustainability. This effort will attempt to increase confidence, self esteem, and independence. The group interaction may provide enough room to share views, opinions, and emotional and psychological support.

Objective-3 : Provide primary health care, health education and counseling services


Typically for 2-3 villages there will be one female midwife (field health worker) and one primary health care centre for 8-12 villages (supported by one doctor and supportive nursing staff) in Karnataka state. A separate formal meeting will be organized with primary health care staff to provide specific treatment and nursing service requirements to devadasi initiated girls. Primary health care staff may be trained to provide counseling services to those in need of them. Female midwifes (field health workers) will have access to and will build connectivity with davadasi families. Since female midwifes are culturally accepted, the paper proposes to utilize the services of midwifes effectively to gain access and initiate paper activities with devadasi families. Initially the paper will be provided with good quality medicines, contraceptives, counseling services through primary health care center and midwife field services. This will build trust and confidence in the paper’s activities, and improved sexual health and psychosocial support through counseling services.

Objective-4: Assistance to devadasi culture challenged girls


The paper anticipates that some of the devadasi initiated girls may not be willing to change their life style. Such devadasis will not be left out of the program. Efforts will be made for such a section or group of girls to participate in job oriented training, the micro credit loan system and the primary health care service provision, and by encouraging them to participate in one to one and group meetings. The conceptual framework of the program is designed so that after a certain period of the paper’s activities, the mutual trust may improve, a significant number of devadasi girls may be willing to change their views, helping themselves to become empowered economically and building confidence in themselves, and eventually integrating within the community.

A key community members committee will understand, negotiate and help such girls to overcome from the devadasi system. Religious heads will be motivated to go for more ritual cleaning ceremonies to change the attitude of such unwilling girls.

Objective-5: Change of community attitude and practices toward the davadasi system and the building of a sustainable devadasi free community.


A community committee will be constituted including the key stakeholders such as village heads, representatives from women’s self help groups, a few devadasi family representatives, the welfare department, primary health care workers, religious heads, and other community based organizations. The community committee members will receive training based on ‘children’s rights’ ‘girl child health and psychosocial’ issues and scope of ‘community participation’ to strengthen the program.

The paper will organize: monthly/quarterly meeting; help for the decision making process; ensure attendance; facilitate and prepare agendas; support minute preparation and the sharing of summary points with all stakeholders. The community committee will be responsible for and will oversee: organizing purifying ritual ceremonies at regular interval to promote the maximum number of devadasis to participate; organizing job oriented training programs; and ensuring the adequacy of health and counseling services. The paper will consult committee members on unresolved practical implementation problems such as security issues, to increase the numbers who participate in trainings, and in organizing cleansing ceremonies.

The community committee will help to increase the self sustainability of the program, enhance the resilience capacity of target group, and consider cultural and context specific issues in order to strengthen the psychosocial-well being of devadasi initiated girls.

5.5 Time frame

It is necessary to fund the paper for a long-term vision. However, to begin with the paper is planned to run for 4 years. This time frame is planned: to ensure the paper initiation to integrate with local communities; to develop and meet measurable indicators; to ensure the acceptability of the initiative to the community and to integrate the program to sustain the activity.

6. Potential risks, assumptions and anticipated solutions

This section highlights the main risks identified; their level of probability and their impact on the paper. Suggestions to reduce the negative impact of these risks on the paper are included in table No. 3, appendix 3.

7. Monitoring and Evaluation

The activities will be designed in order to protect health and psychosocial development, but progress will be measured under the best of achievable circumstances. The program will include the psychosocial, health services and community behaviors, vocational training skills of devadasi girls as priority concerns in the community. The objectives and connected activities of the paper are designed with situation analysis and using the guiding principles of Ager (2001) as mentioned above and the activities are measurable using both quantitative and qualitative methods within a specific time frame ( Ager, 2001). The outcomes will be measured as below, the measurement and indicators may be slightly changed based on experience in the beginning of the paper and baseline survey data.

7.1 Indicators to measure

Table: 4

Expected outcomes





Decreased number of devadasi initiated girls

-Baseline survey data

-Endline survey data

-Number of religious leaders organized cleansing ceremonies

-Number of targeted group attended

-Frequency of cleansing cermonies

-Interview of key stakeholders,

-Community committee members

Better health services, decreased number of health problems

-Hospital records

-Interview with devadasi girls


Reduced discrimination, feelings, emotional balance,

-Number of ritual cleansing ceremonies organized

-Number of participants

-Number of Community members participation in cleansing ceremonies.

-random interview with devadasi girls

-Focus group discussion

-Community opinions/ on acceptance of devadasi in regular community life

-Community participation

Confidence level, self esteem, self image in the community

-Number of public meetings attended

-auspicious ceremonies attended

-Interview of devadasi girls,

Interview of randomly selected community members

-Focus group discussion of devadasis

Economic empowerment of devadasi girls

-Number of job oriented, skill development trainings/workshops organized.

-micro credit recipients number

-Number of target group attended (attendance sheet verification)

-Interview with devadasi girls who underwent training

-focus group discussion of devadasi girls

-opinion and potential benefit from micro credit system

8. References

Ager, A. 2001. Programing and evaluation for psychosocial programs. The refugee experience. Psychosocial training module. Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre.

Available from [accessed on 3rd of April, 2008].

Blachard, JF., O’Neil, J., Ramesh, BM., Bhattacharjee, P,. Orchard, T and Moses, S. 2005. Understanding the Social and Cultural Contexts of Female Sex Workers in Karnataka, India: Implications for Prevention of HIV Infection. Journal of Infectious Diseases.2005:191[online]. Available from http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/425273?cookieSet=1 [accessed on 15th of April, 2008].

An attempt to look at the myth and reality of history and present status of Devadasis

Chakraborthy, K. 2000. Women as Devadasis Origin and Growth of the Devadasi Pr


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