As she stands and addresses an audience in a village, Kalavathy, 38, bowls you over with her confidence. She is a peer coordinator who moves around Bagalkot training other devadasis like herself to push forward the HIV prevention programme as that is the only way to stay healthy and alive. Devadasis are women are who 'dedicated' to God as girls and then used for sex with social and religious sanction.

Kalavathy was just nine when she was dedicated to goddess Yellama as a devadasi. She remembers the ceremony like a marriage. At 12, she was sent to Karad, Maharashtra, with an older devadasi from the same area. "I had no idea what I was in for. One night a man came to me while I was sleeping. Taking a sickle I threatened to kill him. The man went away, but other devadasis explained that there was no point in rebelling, as this was the life I was to lead as I had the responsibility to look after my family."

Devadasis in a role play performance on child marriage in Hipparagi village. Pic: Village Health Committee, Kovalli, Bilagi Taluk, Bagalkot.

Like Kalavathy, most devadasis look after not only their family, but also of the other siblings. As the devadasi system has social sanction, no one in the family feels guilty living off the earnings of a sex worker.

Pregnant at 14, Kalavathy returned home to deliver the baby. Five months later, she was back to work in Karad. But when her daughter was almost a year old, she sent her to be looked after by her family. She was clear that her daughter would not ever be forced to do what she did for a living.

Kalavathy's daughter is now 20, happily married and has a child. The difference is that she is not a devadasi. Kalavathy ensured that. As a peer coordinator she supervises eight other educators who are all devadasis and they carry HIV prevention messages to their community in Bagalkot. They also work to ensure that dedications do not happen, there is more awareness against it and that the health of the community is paramount.

Although the practice of dedicating girls as devadasis is banned and punishable under the Karnataka Devadasi Prohibition Act 1982, some cases continue to happen. Kalavathy says they were able to stop 12 dedications in the last few months. "As a devadasi, I constantly counsel parents who plan to dedicate their children and try and stop them." Yet, there have been times when they have not been successful. Kalavathy says in the last three years there have been ten dedications; they were done so secretly that the community was not able to prevent it. The ruse was to send them off to Maharashtra. Only when the girls came home pregnant, did everyone know that they had been dedicated.

Social sanction

In olden days, after dedication, the girls danced at temple festivals and functions. The priests freely used them for sex and were later passed on to the village chiefs. Then they were the sexual objects for village seniors before they were made available to anyone who wanted them for sex. They had little choice but to become sex workers.

Bagalkot's Chaitanya Mahila Sangha, floated by around 2,000 sex workers who are mostly devadasis is today a model worthy of replication.

It shows how a disadvantaged community forced into sex work has snatched the opportunity to strategise with courage and hope.

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It was not just Bagalkot that has had the devadasi system. Over the years, it emerged in Belgaum, Bijapur, Raichur, Koppal, Dharwad, Shimoga, Haveri, Gadag and other districts of north Karnataka. There are around 25,000 devadasis in Karnataka today. The practice is also prevalent in other states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa.

In all these states, the practice has had social sanction, which ensured their sexual exploitation in a sophisticated fashion. It was a cleverly designed social ploy to use the women as sex objects while making it seem that it was a social practice that had God's blessings. Families were also made to feel that they had sacrificed their daughter for God. It also ensured that there were no objections even from those who were exploited or abused as they were made to feel that it was a way of life and they were only doing it in the name of God. As there was social sanction, they were not called prostitutes, but devadasis.

As it turned out, it was the poor folk from scheduled castes and tribes and the backward classes that got sucked into the devadasi system. They had little strength to oppose it. And some families did it out of sheer poverty. Many dedicated a girl to Goddess Yellama, thinking it would lead to family prosperity, be blessed with a male child or be just blessed for dedicating a female child. These girls were not allowed to marry and stayed alone.

Grueling poverty

Although traditionally, devadasis may have danced at temples, most of the contemporary devadasis do not even mention this. Sex work is the primary work. Most contemporary devadasis have a regular partner who supports them. They have children, although children have no rights on their father's name or property. Apart from their regular partner they have some clients they cater to, but they are selective.

Most devadasis say their families were driven to destitution, and as Schedule Castes they were at the very bottom of the social order, living in clusters on the outskirts of the village. Poverty was the primary reason for 'dedicating' a daughter – who would then operate from a part of the house itself that would be earmarked for entertaining clients. The religious reason may have been there traditionally, in most current cases, it was sheer desperation that prompted 'dedication'.

They are not allowed to marry because technically they are "married to God". Therefore, they are referred to as nitya sumangali – someone who can never be a widow.

Stopping the exploitation

As noted earlier, In Karnataka, devadasis have had a place in society and are not looked down upon as mere sex workers due to social sanction. Now that they have started to work as activists against dedication and are active in AIDS prevention work, their status has improved.

Ask Kalavathy. Ever since she became a community worker, she feels empowered. She is now aware of her dignity, her rights, and her self-esteem. Being able to be a crucial link in preventing AIDS has increased her self-confidence and even come to terms with her identity as a devadasi. No more is there any guilt and shame.

In Mudhol, the taluk headquarters of Bagalkot district, over a hundred devadasis gather at a nondescript building. There is a lot of energy around. They have gathered to review their efforts to stop minor girls from being dedicated to the Yelamma Goddess that stops them from marrying and living a normal life. At the meeting they dissect their efforts to stop the spread of AIDS among the devadasis who have been forced to become sex workers. That is not all. They also review accounts of their micro-credit group which today deals with thousands of rupees in terms of economic activity.

Oath taking on preventing child marriage in Hipparagi. Pic: Village Health Committee, Kovalli, Bilagi Taluk, Bagalkot.

These are gutsy women who are not afraid or shy or ashamed of talking of their lives despite invariably having witnessed a lot of trauma and pain. Today, they are confident, optimistic and determined.

These devadasis are part of the India-Canada Collaborative HIV/AIDS Project (ICHAP), which has been running in Bagalkot in association with the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT). The project is helping devadasis run an awareness campaign to prevent HIV and AIDS. It also involves looking after those infected, counsels them on how to live with the reality of having contracted it and how to help themselves with healthcare. ICHAP conducted its survey at the end of 2002, and it's Bagalkot Development Program started in January 2003. KHPT took over in April 2006.

In many ways, the ongoing campaign of the devadasis on the danger of AIDS has helped bring the issue into focus. While visiting a group of devadasis in the state, the Karnataka's Health Minister R Ashok, said that his government would seriously consider legislation to make the HIV testing mandatory for couples before marriage.

High prevalence of HIV, Bagalkot emerging as a model

Karnataka stands sixth in the list of states with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Andhra Pradesh has the highest rates followed by Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Manipur and Nagaland. Half of Karnataka's 27 districts are high prevalence areas. The Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society says that HIV prevalence in the state is 1.56 per cent, which is nearly three times the national average. Over five lakh people in Karnataka have been infected with HIV. Bagalkot district stands out with a prevalence of 3.2 per cent.

Bagalkot was picked up for intervention by the Canadian International Development Agency project for numerous reasons: Health infrastructure was weak and it had large number of migrant workers and an equally large devadasi population that catered to them. Initial surveys in the district showed a high-risk behaviour: As many as 32 per cent of married men, 23 per cent of unmarried men and 18 per cent of married women said they had extra marital or premarital sex. Around 83 per cent of sex workers entertained one to five clients a day and nine per cent more than five clients a day. They mainly came from Sangli in Maharashtra, which was nearby. Other clients came from sugarcane growing areas where there was visible prosperity.

In many ways, Bagalkot is today becoming a model of sorts for AIDS prevention and control. Devadasis are getting together to battle the disease, fight stigma, get back respect in society and ensure that their daughters are not forced into sexual exploitation. The people of Bagalkot are not shy or reticent about talking of AIDS or HIV and how it has impacted its residents and how they are positively coping.

Chaithanya Mahila Sangha
Mallamman Street
Mudhol Post Taluk
Bagalkot District

Karnataka Health Promotion Trust Uniworth Plaza
1st Floor
Sankey Road
Palace Guttahalli

The Chaitanya Mahila Sangha floated by around 2,000 sex workers who are mostly devadasis is today a model worthy of replication. Besides giving information on HIV prevention, education and empowerment, it has provided devadasis access to micro-credit with around 40 self-help groups. The sangha shows how a disadvantaged community forced into sex work has snatched the opportunity to strategise with courage and hope.

In many ways, micro-credit has helped many of the devadasis rewrite their lives, moving into different vocations like peer group educators, tailors and craftswomen. It has also helped to give their children to stay away from sex work as they have the money to now study and chase a different life. It has helped them and their children to gain a new respect in society. Earlier, no bank ever offered loans to devadasis as they were seen as sex workers. Today, no bank in Bagalkot ever turns down a request for a loan as micro-credit groups have established credibility.

Still, despite their recent assertions, the devadasis are emotional about their relationships with their 'regular partners' as it is the only thing they have in life to cling to. Many of their regular partners who say that they love them, actually do not, but use the relationship to further exploit them in terms of getting loans and the like. These devadasis readily part with money when their partners ask.

In one Bagalkot workshop held by a NGO, the devadasis were asked to come with their "lovers". The men were then asked to write on a piece of paper whom they cared for the most. The men wrote the name of their wives or daughters. It hurt the devadasis present as they realized that they were living in a world of imagination. But even today, this is one area they would rather not talk about, as they do not like being critical about their "partners." Even if there is a semblance of love, it is enough for them.

Creating a new ambience

Peer educators were given training on various aspects of HIV/AIDS, issues of sex and sexuality, negotiating condom use, mobilising the community, treatment and counseling. As peer groups fanned out into the area, they were in touch with the community as never before. Conversations with many activists and the devadasis themselves show that the efforts have helped. Condom use rose and cases of sexually transmitted infections came down. The attitudes of the devadasis also changed. They started saving, refused clients who were minors, got away from unhealthy habits like gutka chewing and alcohol.

In Jamkhandi, a taluk of Bagalkot, the devadasis have created a system of self-regulation of not soliciting openly. They are more careful of not only their health, but also the health of their clients. They ensure that their children are respected in schools. They even see that new roads are built and water supply is regular.

Interventions by social activists are now bearing fruit. Earlier, the devadasis could not boast of any skills. They could even not negotiate condom use. They had meekly accepted their gender inequality. They silently suffered from numerous sexually transmitted diseases. Today they have easy access to health workers, have ready information on safe sex and HIV-AIDS, have negotiation skills, savings, work with the community and have a new found confidence and spring in their feet.

Inspiring tales

Over the last few years, the devadasis at Bagalkot have been able to get into alternate livelihoods. Many for instance, have joined NGO's and health groups and work for them.

They believe that through these efforts, when they are able to mainstream themselves, and society is more tolerant and appreciative of their work, they will be able to take a decision on whether they want to do sex work or not.

Otherwise, they feel they will get dragged back into sex work again and again.