34-year-old Laxmi* was dedicated as a Devadasi when she was only five years old. When Laxmi was eleven, she was sent to Pune to ‘be broken in’ by working in a brothel. Her father was given a 10,000 rupees advance (about £100) against her future wages at the time of her dedication. Laxmi was expected to see up to 30 men a night, the vast majority of her wages being kept by the brothel owner. Her own father used to come to Pune to collect the rest of her earnings which he would take back to the village to support the family.
After some time Laxmi was brought back home to her village. Unusually for a devadasi she found one partner to live with - an old client of hers - and brought up her three children with him as their own. She was still expected to give sexual favours from the small hut they called home. Sometimes she would be paid, sometimes men just forced themselves on her. The whole village knows that Laxmi is a Devadasi. As a result, she is mocked and belittled, despite most of the village men being happy to avail themselves of her services.
Looking for a way out
Laxmi is still the main source of income for her mother and father. She would love to leave the Devadasi system behind her but feels that there are too many barriers - this is her identity – it’s how she is known, she has no alternative source of income, and she fears the wrath of her father if she were to stand up for her rights. Years of being treated as a slave have made her feel she has no options.
Two years ago, Laxmi’s partner died and not long after she broke her leg. The wound healed badly and she is unable to walk unaided. No-one except her 3 children, now in their early teens, came forward to help her. Laxmi struggles with pain every day but continues to work because she so badly wants her children to be able to go to school and build for themselves a better life than she has had.
Opportunities and alternatives
Staff from one of our partner organisation’s clinics in southern India met Laxmi, and assessed her situation. Now they visit her regularly to tend to her medical needs, and to encourage her; Laxmi often feels depressed sitting alone at home all day. They are slowly building up trust and empowering Laxmi by making her aware of alternatives to the Devadasi life, and to government schemes which are there to help her but that she did not know about. They are also helping her children to go to school through an educational support scheme.
27 children of women who are HIV positive - many of them are Devadasis - are supported through the provision of books and other school materials. Most of them have lost one or both parents. It is a challenge for them to get an education because they cannot afford to pay school fees, or to buy books and other materials without which the school will not allow them to attend. This small support enables children to be in school who would otherwise not be able. As one Devadasi mother said, “At least my children will have good future”.
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