Devoted as a child to an Indian goddess, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual bondage began when her uncle took her virginity and raped her in exchange for a saree and some jewellery.
Bhimappa was less than 10 years old when she became a “Devadasi” – girls who were forced by their parents to undergo an elaborate marriage ritual to a Hindu deity, many of whom were then forced into illegal prostitution.
Devadasis are expected to live a life of religious devotion, are forbidden to marry other mortals, and are forced during puberty to sacrifice their virginity to an older man in exchange for money or gifts.
“In my case, it was my mother’s brother,” Bhimappa, now in his late 40s, told AFP.
What followed were years of sexual slavery, earning money for her family by meeting other men in the name of Goddess service.
Bhimappa eventually escaped her bondage, but with no education, she earns about a dollar a day working in the fields.
Her time as a devotee of the Hindu goddess Yellamma has also made her an outcast in the eyes of her community.
She had once loved a man, but it would have been unthinkable for her to ask him to marry him.
“If I wasn’t a Devadasi, I would have had a family and children and some money. I would have lived well,” she said.
Devadasis have been an integral part of South Indian culture for centuries and once held a respectable place in society.
Many were highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, lived comfortable lives, and chose their own sexual partners.
“This notion of more or less religiously sanctioned sexual slavery was not part of the original system of patronage,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.
Iyer said that in the 19th century, during the British colonial period, the divine pact between devadasi and goddess evolved into an institution of sexual exploitation.
It now serves as a means for impoverished families from the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to free themselves from responsibility for their daughters.
The practice was banned in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka as early as 1982, and India’s Supreme Court has labeled young girls’ devotion to temples as “evil”.
However, activists say young girls are still secretly accepted into Devadasi orders.
Four decades after the state ban, more than 70,000 Devadasis still live in Karnataka, India’s Human Rights Commission wrote last year.
– ‘I was alone’ –
Girls in India are generally considered onerous and expensive due to the tradition of wedding dowries.
By forcing daughters to become devadasis, poorer families gain a source of income and avoid the expense of marriage.
Many households around the small southern town of Saundatti – home to a revered Yellamma temple – believe that a family member in the order can improve their fortunes or heal a loved one’s illness.
In this temple, Sitavva D. Jodatti was asked to marry the goddess when she was eight years old.
Her sisters had all married other men, and their parents decided to dedicate them to Yellamma to care for them.
“When other people get married, there is a bride and a groom. When I realized I was alone, I started crying,” Jodatti, 49, told AFP.
Her father eventually became ill and she was pulled from school to engage in sex work and pay for his treatment.
“I had two kids when I was 17,” she said.
Rekha Bhandari, a former Devadasi colleague, said they were subjected to a “blind tradition” practice that ruined their lives.
She was forced into the Order after the death of her mother and was 13 when a 30-year-old man took her virginity. She became pregnant soon after.
“Having a normal birth was difficult. The doctor yelled at my family and said I was too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old told AFP.
“I had no understanding.”
– ‘Many women have died’ –
Years of unsafe sex exposed many Devadasis to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
“I know women who are infected and now it has been passed on to their children,” an activist who works with Devadasis, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
“They hide it and live with it in secret. Many women have died.”
Parents are occasionally prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be initiated as devadasis, and women who leave the order receive a meager state pension of 1,500 rupees (US$18) a month.
Nitesh Patil, an official who manages Saundatti, told AFP that there have been no recent cases of women being dedicated to temples.
Last year, after a media investigation revealed that Devadasi inductions were still widespread, the Indian Human Rights Commission ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to explain what they are doing to prevent the practice.
The stigma surrounding their past means that women who leave their Devadasi order often endure life as outcasts or ridiculous objects, and few marry.
Many are destitute or struggle to survive with poorly paid manual and agricultural work.
Jodatti now leads a civil society group that has helped free the women AFP spoke to from their lives of bondage and support former devadasis.
She said many of her contemporaries were engrossed a few years ago by the #MeToo movement and the personal revelations of famous women around the world who exposed them as sexual abuse survivors.
“We watch the news and sometimes when we see famous people … we understand that their situation is very similar to ours. You suffered the same. But they continue to live freely,” she said.
“We’ve had the same experience but we don’t get the respect they get.
“Devadasi women are still looked down upon.”