Even when parts of Belgaum district is deep-rooted in age-old obsolete traditions, the indomitable women of MASS, ex-Devadasis themselves, have stepped in and taken head-on the age-old Devadasi tradition, which eventually has led to its eradication.
“I want school but not marriage,” said 13-year-old Kaveri when her physically handicapped mother decided to marry her off after her husband, the sole breadwinner of the family, died. The little girl stopped going to school soon after the preparations for her marriage had begun. In stepped the strong women from Mahila Abhivrudhi Mattu Samrakshana Samasthe (MASS), and convinced Kaveri’s mother of the pitfalls of child marriage. She was persuaded to support her daughter’s desire to study. Today, Kaveri goes to school without having to worry about being married off at a young age. This is just one incident in the village of Toranhalli. A similar incident took place in Chikkodi taluka of Belgaum district, where MASS’s timely intervention helped rescue another girl from being married off when she should have been in school. But many young girls under the age of 18 are still being married off, especially when they hit puberty and at a time when they are supposed to enjoy their childhood and get an education. Villages remain entrenched in issues that we in our urban cloistered spaces can claim ignorance about.
The first step
MASS, a Belgaum-based organisation, helps women and children in several ways and provides them financial and social support. The organisation was founded by Shobha Ghasti, a 48-year-old ex-Devadasi and a mother of two. Shobha, a Child Rights and You (CRY) project holder, was in the sixth standard when she was asked to drop out of school and devote her life to being a Devadasi. For the uninitiated, Devadasi is a Sanskrit word where Deva or Devi stands for God and Dasi for slave servant and are followers of the Yellamma or Renuka cult. They enjoyed a high social status; however, through the ages they came to be seen as slaves of priests and the elite. Karnataka and Maharashtra were two of the main states where this tradition was prevalent for 10 centuries. It was only in 1934 that under the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act, Devadasis were protected and the act said, “Women were prevented from being dedicated to Hindu deities, idols, objects of worship, temples, and religious institutions in the two states of Bombay.” In Independent India, the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947 was passed which gave Devadasis the legal right to marry and made it illegal to dedicate girls to Hindu temples. Despite these acts the practice continued unabated. Shobha’s family decided to dedicate her after her mother dreamt of Goddess Yellamma asking for the dedication of her daughter, failing which she may risk a misfortune falling on the family. Reminiscing her childhood, Shobha says, “I remember seeing a girl in the neighborhood who already had dedicated herself as a Devadasi and was wearing a red-and-white bead necklace around her neck.”
During the ceremony, Shobha was happy being the centre of attention; however, she remained unaware of the repercussions this action would have in her life. Her question why was she the only one who had to drop out of school while all her other friends continued going to school fell on deaf years. After being discriminated, humiliated, and oppressed by the upper caste men from her village, Shobha decided that this was not the life she wanted. She made a conscious decision to take the first step towards liberation. “I took a firm decision that if it ever came into my sight I will never let it continue,” she adds.
The genesis of MASS
In 1991, the Karnataka State Women’s Development Corporation (KSWDC, a Karnataka government undertaking) set up the Devadasi Rehabilitation Project (DRP) – the project that Shobha chose to volunteer with in 1996. Aimed at eradicating the Devadasi system by providing economic and social security for the ex-Devadasis through Self-Help Groups (SHGs) creation, awareness camps, and health camps, the DRP also made available bank loans for former Devadasis by way of assisting them with income-generating activities. Shobha saw in this her first step to her liberation from the oppressive system. It was at KSWDC that she found her role model and her biggest supporter – Lathammala – who was at that time a project officer in the DRP. “She taught me how to deal with the government system and how to implement a project effectively. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am today,” recalls Shobha.
As a volunteer, she visited all the Yellamma temples of Bijapur, Raichur, Belgaum, Koppal, Dharwad, Haveri, and Gadag to work with fellow Devadasis to understand the perils they faced and also to support other Devadasi women wanting to live another way of life. During her visits and her one year of work with the DRP, Shobha understood that if women with a common purpose were to come together they could put an end to an abusive tradition – one which could have a better impact. Hence, the genesis of MASS began in 1997 with the sole focus on securing the rights of women and children, especially those oppressed by the Devadasi system.
Breaking the myths and the symbols
The transformation did not happen overnight. Shobha and her legion of ex-Devadasis had to clear many hurdles to do away with the Devadasi practice and that meant changing perceptions. Recalling one such incident in 1997 during a 15-day campaign, she recollects, “While we were demonstrating in front of a temple, men from the priestly class came with sticks and tried to stop us, but we stood our ground.” It took time but they finally managed to get the other side to the discussion table. Overtime, MASS has devised a number of campaigns aimed strategically at destroying the symbols of the Devadasi practice and system. ‘Bangle wearing’ ceremony was one of their more successful campaigns in which they attempted to undo the whole “breaking of the bangle” tradition, and replace it with a “wearing of the bangle”. (Bangles in the Indian tradition symbolise marriage. Since Devadasis were not permitted to marry a mortal, this campaign turned the whole tradition on its head.)
In their bid to get the priestly class to understand their stance, they asked Swamijis’ to take away the symbolic red-and-white bead necklace which was tied to a Devadasi. It was then passed on to her daughter or granddaughter in the family and sort of perpetuated it as an inter-generational tradition. In a symbolic gesture, MASS convinced former Devadasis to hand over these beads to the Swamijis, and break the very symbol of their identity as a Devadasi. “We knew that if we break the symbols and perceptions associated with the practice in society, then we would be able to eradicate the whole practice in the minds of people, which is the most effective way to counteract the problem,” she states. The ritual of growing matted (knotted) hair as a symbol for the young girl child who would become a Devadasi was also broken in a medical camp, wherein invited medical professionals and doctors spoke about the ill-effects of matted hair. Soon after MASS organised for the mass cutting of the matted hair of all young girl children in Belgaum, somewhere the symbols signifying the cruel tradition was disappearing from their midst. But how was one to counter the connect to religion? To a goddess? Shobha’s gang of girls knew that this would be a tough ask for the yearly pilgrimage undertaken by many to the Saundatti temple (Abode of Yellamma goddess, worshipped for her strength and power), which would mean shaking foundations of religious faith. But with their strong women’s collectives (groups of women belonging to the same community with a common cause) and with rigorous monitoring during the Saundatti temple festivals, they managed to stem the practice of forcing girls into being a Devadasi.
The MASS team, now a 3,500-strong organisation, after 18 years of its presence in Belgaum has witnessed the initiation of 20 impactful projects in Chikkodi geared towards ensuring the dignity of women and enhancing access to education for girl children. Through their work they have prevented child marriages, child trafficking, and girl child abuse. “When one sees the dedication of the members in the organisation, one feels the sense of pride and ownership that each member has for the organisation. It is only because I have got an opportunity to be known in the public, but each and every member of the organisation has the same passion and strength flowing through them as I have,” confesses Shobha. A staunch believer of child rights, especially since she has become a project holder with CRY, Shobha understands that the rights of children should not just be kept in the Indian constitution and talked about but should be put into action. MASS has been undertaking programmes like running children activity centres in Raibagh taluka, giving special academic inputs to strengthen the child’s overall academic performance, identifying enrolled children (who are mostly children of daily-wage workers) and following up on drop-out children, conducting Child Gram Sabhas (which is a forum where children can voice out their problems and concerns on institutions like Aganwadis, school compounds, school toilets, etc., in the village) and extending legal support service for the protection of women and children. One can say with 5,517 children enrolled in school; 1,141 children identified with malnutrition; and 42 births registered with the help of MASS in the district (as of 2012) that this has been one of their biggest achievements.
After 18 years, today Shobha envisions a time of zero child marriage in her village and district. “The women of MASS and I consider child marriage as a social evil. I will fight against child marriage with the same passion as I had against the Devadasi system,” declared Shobha. Unlike the Devadasi system, where they were taking on two communities in the village, in the case of the child marriage, they will have to take on the whole village community. Amidst this realisation, Shobha still remains confident that child marriages would be abolished not only in the society but also in the minds of the people. And she is determined to fight on. Currently, MASS is designing campaigns specifically to bring awareness on child rights, especially on the girl child, and it won’t be long before MASS’s dream of securing the rights of girls would turn into reality.
Her biggest source of encouragement remains her children: a daughter (pursuing BCA) and a son (doing his MBA). “Whenever my son is asked about me, he proudly says that she is a social worker and fights for women’s rights despite the fact that she has only studied till class six, she has talked about women’s rights in many international forums, whenever I hear that I feel encouraged to do more, “ Shobha quips excitedly.