Dedicated to an Indian goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual slavery began when her uncle took her virginity, raping her in exchange for a saree and some jewellery.
Bhimappa was not even 10 years old when she became “devadasi” – girls forced by their parents into elaborate wedding rites with a Hindu deity, many of whom were then forced into illegal prostitution.
Devadasis are expected to live a life of religious devotion, forbidden to marry other humans, and forced at puberty to sacrifice their virginity to an older man, in return for money or gifts.
“In my case, it was my mother’s brother,” Pehmaba, now in her late 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.
Eventually, Bhimappa escaped from her enslavement but with no education, earning about $1 a day as she toiled in the fields.
Her time as a devotee of the Hindu goddess Yellama also made her an outcast in the eyes of her community.
She had once loved a man, but it was unreasonable for her to ask him to marry her.
“If I were not a devadasi, I would have a family, children and some money. I would live well,” she said.
Devadasis have been an integral part of South Indian culture for centuries and once enjoyed a respected position in society.
Many of them were highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, led comfortable lives and were selective about their sexual partners.
“The idea of sexual slavery sanctioned more or less by religion was not part of the original patronage system,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.
Iyer said that in the nineteenth century, during the British colonial era, the divine pact between the Devadasi and the Goddess developed into an institution of sexual exploitation.
It now serves as a way for poor families from below the strict caste hierarchy in India to get rid of responsibility for their daughters.
The practice was outlawed in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka in 1982, and the devotion of young girls to temples was described as “evil” by the Supreme Court of India.
However, activists say young girls are still being secretly recruited into the Devadasi orders.
After four decades of state bans, there are still more than 70,000 Devadasi in Karnataka, the Indian Human Rights Commission wrote last year.
– ‘I was alone’ –
Girls are usually seen as cumbersome and expensive in India due to the tradition of wedding dowries.
By forcing girls to become devadasi, poor families get a source of income and avoid the costs of marrying them.
Many families around the small southern town of Saundatti – home to the revered Yellamma Temple – believe that having a family member in the arrangement can boost their fortunes or cure a loved one’s illness.
It was in this temple that Sittavva de Gudati was commissioned to marry the Goddess when she was eight years old.
All of her sisters had married other men, and her parents decided to dedicate her to Yllama in order to provide for them.
“When other people get married, there is a bride and groom. And when I realized that I was alone, I started crying,” Judati, 49, told AFP.
Her father eventually fell ill, and she was removed from school to work as a sex worker and help pay for his treatment.
“At the age of 17, I had two children,” she said.
They were subjected to a practice of “blind mimicry” that destroyed their lives, said Rekha Bhandari, a former Devadasi classmate.
She was forced into custody after her mother died and she was 13 years old when a 30-year-old man took her virginity. I got pregnant soon after.
“It was difficult to have a normal birth,” the 45-year-old told AFP. “The doctor in my family screamed that I was too young to give birth.”
“I had no understanding.”
– Many women died –
Years of unsafe sex have exposed many devadasi to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
“I know infected women and now it has passed to their children,” an activist working with Devadasi, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
“They hide her and live with her in secrecy. Many women have died.”
Fathers are sometimes prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be recruited as devadasi, and women who leave receive a meager state pension of 1,500 rupees ($18) per month.
There had been “no recent cases” of women being dedicated to temples, Natesh Patil, a civil servant who runs the town of Sundathi, told AFP.
The Indian Rights Commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to determine what they were doing to prevent the practice, after a media investigation found that Devadasi incitements were still widespread.
The stigma surrounding the past meant that women who left the devadasi system often endured life as outcasts or as objects of ridicule, and few ever married.
Many find themselves destitute or struggle to survive on low-paid manual labor and agricultural work.
Godati now heads a civil society group that has helped lift women AFP spoke to from a life of slavery and provide support to former devadasi.
Several years ago, she said, many of her contemporaries became involved in the #MeToo movement and the personal revelations of celebrity women around the world that exposed them as survivors of sexual assault.
“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 still live freely,” she said.
“We’ve had the same experience, but we don’t get the respect he does.
Devadasi women are still looked down upon.