Putting an End to Ritualised Prostitution in India: What Will It Take?


(Photo Credit)

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

The beginning of February marked a small but important victory for women’s rights in India with the Supreme Court issuing a judgment on a much discussed public interest litigation case brought in by the Kerala-based NGO SL Foundation in 2014. The case concerns the failure of both central and local governments in India to take steps to prevent the Devadasis dedication that was held on 13 February 2014 at a temple in Kerala.

The Devadasi system is a centuries-old Indian tradition, said to have originated from a pre-historic Hindu fertility cult, in which young girls are ‘sacrificed’ by their families as a dedication to the goddess Yellamma in symbolic ‘marriage ceremonies’.While the earliest forms of this practice were solely affiliated with performing sacred temple rituals in service of a deity and the ‘dedicated’ girls enjoyed a high social status, during the British rule of the Indian subcontinent, the Devadasi girls slowly began engaging in what has been described as ‘religious prostitution’ as a result of losing their traditional means of support and patronage from temple leaders who became virtually powerless in colonial times.

This led to Devadasis becoming the sexual property of devotees, with many of them ending up being trafficked into brothels until they become too old or ill to be considered desirable. The practice was declared unlawful with the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act from 1982 and the Andhra Pradesh Devadasi Act from 1988.

However, despite being outlawed for decades, this system of forced ritualised prostitution has not only never ceased to exist, but is also currently a thriving ‘business’ in a number of Union territories, especially those of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

There, tens of thousands of vulnerable young girls and women are caught up in a vicious cycle of sexual exploitation for reasons beyond their control, amongst which are India’s deep-rooted patriarchal values resulting in extreme forms of gender-based discrimination as well as widespread poverty, oppression and social exclusion of women belonging to Dalit communities, who are almost always the ones forced to serve as Devadasis.

On 12 February 2016, the Supreme Court once again condemned the practice of pushing young girls into religious prostitution and directed all States and Union territories to strictly enforce the existing legislation in this area and to perform regular ‘checks’ for signs of this ‘undesired and unhealthy’ form of religious dedication so as to guarantee its complete abolition.

International Women’s Initiative strongly welcomes the Supreme Court’s efforts to push for a better implementation of the laws prohibiting sexual exploitation for religious purposes. However, it also recognises that there is still much work that lies ahead if we are to once and for all uproot the practice, especially considering India’s long history of deeply entrenched discrimination against women that continues to exist today.

In order for this decision not to remain plain words on paper, it will take a lot more than prohibiting the practice and urging local governments to ensure that no illegal activities of subjecting women to forced prostitution take place. What is needed is a stronger commitment of the Indian government to women’s economic empowerment through a sustained action to advance their rights and have their voices heard as well as a collective effort to provide better education and knowledge of health issues and, most importantly, a serious readjustment of societal views of men towards women.