Dedicated to an Indian goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual servitude began when her uncle took her virginity and raped her in exchange for a sari and some jewelry.
Bhimappa was not yet 10 years old when she became a “devadasi” – girls forced by their parents into an elaborate marriage ritual with a Hindu deity, many of whom are then forced into illegal prostitution.
Devadasis are expected to lead a life of religious devotion, are forbidden to marry other mortals, and at puberty are forced 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 was 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 with no education, she earns about a dollar a day from toiling 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.
“Had I not been 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, lived comfortable lives and chose their own sexual partners.
“This idea 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 era, the divine pact between devadasi and the goddess evolved into an institution of sexual exploitation.
It now serves as a means for poverty-stricken families from the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to relieve themselves of responsibility for their daughters.
The practice was banned in 1982 in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka, and India’s highest court has described the devotion of young girls to temples as an “evil”.
Campaigners say, however, that young girls are still secretly accepted into devadasi orders.
Four decades after the state ban, there are still more than 70,000 devadasis in Karnataka, India’s Human Rights Commission wrote last year.
– ‘I was alone’ –
Girls are often seen as troublesome and precious in India due to the tradition of wedding dowries.
Forcing daughters to become devadasis provides poorer families with a source of income and avoids the expense of forced marriage.
Many households around the small southern town of Saundatti — home to a revered Yellamma temple — believe that having a relative in the order can improve their fortunes or cure a loved one’s illness.
It was in this temple that Sitavva D. Jodatti was ordered to marry the goddess when she was eight years old.
Her sisters were all married to other men and her parents decided to dedicate her to Yellamma to take care of them.
“When other people get married, there is a bride and a groom. When I realized I was alone, I started crying,” 49-year-old Jodatti told AFP.
Her father eventually fell ill and she was taken out of school to do sex work and help pay for his treatment.
“When I was 17, I had two kids,” she said.
Rekha Bhandari, a fellow ex-devadasi, said they had been subjected to a practice of “blind tradition” that had ruined their lives.
She was forced to order after her mother’s death and was 13 when a 30-year-old man took her virginity. Soon after, she became pregnant.
“A normal delivery 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 idea.”
– ‘Many women have died’ –
Years of unprotected sex exposed many devadasis to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
“I know women who have been infected and now it has been passed on to their children,” an activist working with devadasis, who declined to be named, told AFP.
“They hide it and secretly live with it. Many women have died.”
Parents are occasionally prosecuted for having their daughters initiated as devadasis, and women who leave the order are paid a meager government pension of 1,500 rupees ($18) a month.
Nitesh Patil, an official who runs Saundatti, told AFP there were no “recent cases” of women devoting themselves to temples.
India’s rights commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to spell out what they were doing to prevent the practice after a media investigation found that devadasi inductions are still widespread.
The stigma surrounding their past means that women who leave their devadasi order often live as outcasts or objects of ridicule, with few ever marrying.
Many are destitute or struggle to survive on low-paid manual and agricultural work.
Jodatti now leads a civil society group that helped free the women AFP spoke to from their lives of service and provides support to former devadasis.
She said many of her contemporaries were preoccupied several years ago with the #MeToo movement and the personal revelations of famous women around the world that revealed they were 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 suffered the same thing. 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.”