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Home > About US > Magazine > A Tragic Tradition

[(c) September 2006/Jon Warren/World Vision]

AIDS adds a cruel twist to temple prostitution.

World Vision Magazine, Spring 2007

By Dean Owen

Seven-year-old Mani lost her mother to AIDS—nowadays a major occupational hazard for a devadasi, otherwise known as a temple prostitute. Her grandmother, another devadasi, is also dead.

Education could save Mani from following in her mother's and grandmother's footsteps.
[(c) September 2006/Jon Warren/ World Vision]
The carefree girl now lives with her 80-year-old great-grandmother, Mogamma Sakhi.

The pair benefit from World Vision’s orphan and vulnerable children program, which provides monthly food rations plus school supplies and tuition for Mani.

But Mani’s future remains in doubt. Despite the obvious risks, Mogamma remains noncommittal about whether the girl will be forced to follow the family’s Hindu tradition into the religious sex trade.

Originally devadasis were celibate dancing girls used in temple ceremonies and to entertain members of the ruling class. But about the sixth century, the practice of “marrying” girls to Hindu gods became prevalent.

Typically a poor couple who could not afford to arrange a conventional marriage for their daughter would find a patron willing to sponsor the temple marriage—thereby purchasing the right to the have sex with the girl. The girl might then be beholden to that sponsor for life, though she could also be made available to others for sexual favors. What was once a socially respectable occupation degenerated into another variant of the world’s oldest profession.

Today, despite several state and national laws prohibiting the devadasi system, this form of prostitution continues. “Weddings” are usually performed at odd hours in private ceremonies to escape detection. Humanitarian organizations estimate that as many as 5,000 Indian girls become devadasis each year.

In the state of Karnataka, World Vision employs former devadasis as peer counselors, to help current devadasis avoid HIV infection and offer skills training to help them find alternative employment.

But it is not easy to convince a working temple prostitute to get another job. A devadasi can earn as much as 5,000 rupees (about $120) a day for sexual favors compared to a couple of dollars for working 10 hours or more as a seamstress.

Former devadasi and peer counselor Ningamma, who is herself HIV-positive, remains undeterred. “We’ve learned lessons, and we want to pass on what we have learned,” she says. “Why should girls be sacrificed and traumatized?”

Dean Owen is a media relations director for World Vision.
Jon Warren is the photo director for World Vision and photo editor for World Vision magazine.

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The feature above was published in
World Vision Magazine Spring 2007[pdf].

Other features from this issue include:

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