For centuries, girls and women have been working in Hindi temples. Doing this, by and by they were degraded to prostitutes. They were talked into believing that this "service to the Gods" was the "holy duty" they had to fulfil. A project in Bangalore rescues girls from a life as slaves to an ancient tradition.
Renuka's grandmother had something special in mind for her granddaughter's life. The girl was to be dedicated to the Goddess Jelamma. To the old woman, such a consecration is meaningful: In her philosophy of life, members of her caste are obliged to serve Jelamma. But this old tradition condemns young girls like Renuka to live an unworthy life. They have to serve men from their villages belonging to higher casts - they work as prostitutes. A project supported by KNH saves Renuka and other girls from this fate.
For centuries, girls and women have been serving in this so called ‘Devadasi system'. However, in the past this service was entirely different from today. In former times, the Devadasi women were servants to the priests and assisted them in ceremonies. They did not provide sexual services then. In the course of time, though, the women were downgraded to prostitutes. Families belonging to higher casts stopped sending their daughters to the Temple. But the Madigas, the lowest group of Indian society, did not have the choice. The priests imposed on them the alleged duty of providing their "services" to the Gods.
"At daytime, men would never touch these girls belonging to the lowest of all Indian casts, would not even come near them. But at night, they abuse them.", Mercy Kappen says. The woman works for KNH's partner Visthar in Bangalore. Together with KNH, Visthar supports a project that saves girls from a life as a Devadasi.
Renuka was spared the way into sexual exploitation. Through local groups and partner organizations, Visthar does educational work in the girls' home villages and supports women in founding self-help-groups. First of all, many of these women have to learn that serving men is not their duty. "We would say: ‘These women are prostitutes.' But they see themselves as servants to the Gods.", Mercy Kappen states. Only educational work makes these women understand that they are being exploited.
A group of women from Renuka's village finally convinced the girl's family to send her to the Bandhavi project. There the 14-year-old lives together with 50 other girls. All of them were in danger of a life as a temple prostitute. The Bandhavi campus consists of lodgings and a school, in which the girls receive extensive education. Apart from conventional lessons, they can chose from creative subjects such as drama and dancing. Being able to attend school is special to the girls. Many of them come from families so poor that they never or hardly ever went to school. Their parents either cannot afford to pay the school fee and to buy a uniform - or they just do not consider sending their daughters to school as necessary. In India, many girls are still compelled into forced marriage and the bride's family has to pay a dowry. "Therefore, to many parents sending their daughters to school is a waste of money.", Mercy Kappen says.
In Bandhavi, the girls prosper. "At first, they are shy and reserved. But after some months already, they begin to thirst for knowledge. They soon become spontaneous and cheerful.", Mercy Kappen recounts. And what might be even more important: These girls know exactly what kind of life Bandhavi saves them from. And they know: They are entitled to live in dignity and they, themselves, have the right to decide on their lives.
Taking the girls out of their villages and admitting them to school is not the only objective of the co-operation between KNH and Visthar. Through educational work and the establishment of self-help-groups, the residents of the girls' home villages shall slowly understand the unworthiness of the Devadasi system.
Today, Renuka says: "I had already accepted my fate as a Devadasi. But now my dreams of a better future can come true. I am leading a new life now."