Dedicated to an Indian goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual servitude began when her uncle took her virginity, raping her in exchange for a sari and some jewelry.
Bhimappa was not yet 10 when she became “devadasi” – girls coerced by their parents into an elaborate marriage ritual with a Hindu deity, many of whom are then coerced into illegal prostitution.
Devadasis are believed to live a life of religious devotion, forbidden to marry other mortals, and forced at 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 40s, told AFP.
What followed were years of sexual slavery, earning money for her family through encounters with other men in the name of serving the goddess.
Bhimappa eventually escaped her servitude but uneducated, she earns around a dollar a day working in the fields.
Her time as a devotee of the Hindu goddess Yellamma also made her an outcast in the eyes of her community.
She had loved a man once, 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, 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 enjoyed a respectable place in society.
Many were highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, led comfortable lives, and chose their sexual partners themselves.
“This notion of more or less religiously sanctioned sexual slavery was not part of the original patronage system,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.
Iyer said that in the 19th century, during British colonial times, the divine pact between devadasi and goddess turned into an institution of sexual exploitation.
It now serves as a means for poor families at the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to offload responsibility for their daughters.
The practice was banned in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka in 1982, and India’s highest court has described young girls’ devotion to temples as “evil”.
Activists, however, say young girls are still secretly inducted into Devadasi orders.
Four decades after the state ban, there are still more than 70,000 Devadasis in Karnataka, the Indian Human Rights Commission wrote last year.
– ‘I was alone’ –
Girls are generally considered burdensome and costly in India due to the tradition of marriage dowries.
By forcing girls to become devadasis, poorer families gain a source of income and avoid the costs of marrying them off.
Many households around the small southern town of Saundatti – home to a revered temple of Yellamma – believe having a family member in order can improve their fortunes or cure a loved one’s illness.
It was in this temple that Sitavva D. Jodatti was enjoined to marry the goddess when she was eight years old.
Her sisters had all married other men, and her parents decided to dedicate her to Yellamma in order to support them.
“When others get married, there is a bride and a groom. When I realized I was alone, I started crying,” says Jodatti, 49.
Her father eventually fell ill and she was pulled out of school to engage in sex work and help pay for her treatment.
“At 17, I had two children,” she said.
Rekha Bhandari, another former Devadasi, said they were subjected to a practice of “blind tradition” which ruined their lives.
She was forced into the order after her mother’s death and was 13 when a 30-year-old man took her virginity. She became pregnant soon after.
“A normal birth was difficult. The doctor yelled at my family, saying I was too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old told AFP.
“I had no understanding.”
– “Many women have died” –
Years of unprotected sex have exposed many devadasis to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
“I know women who are infected and now it’s 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 secrecy. Many women have died.”
Parents are sometimes prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be enthroned as devadasis, and women who leave the order receive meager government pensions of 1,500 rupees ($18) a month.
Nitesh Patil, a civil servant who administers Saundatti, told AFP there had been no “recent cases” of women being consecrated at temples.
The Indian Human Rights Commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to describe what they were doing to prevent the practice, after a media investigation revealed that Devadasi inductions were still prevalent.
The stigma around their past means that women who leave their Devadasi order often endure a life as outcasts or objects of ridicule, and few marry.
Many find themselves destitute or struggling to survive on poorly paid manual and agricultural labor.
Jodatti now leads a civil society group that has helped lift the women AFP spoke to out of their lives of servitude and provides support for former Devadasis.
She said many of her contemporaries were engrossed years ago by the #MeToo movement and the personal revelations of famous women around the world who exposed them as survivors of sexual abuse.
“We watch the news and sometimes when we see famous people…we understand that their situation is very similar to ours. They went through the same thing. But they continue to live freely,” she said.
“We had the same experience, but we don’t get the respect they get.
“Devadasi women are always looked down upon.”