The notion of women as ‘transferable property’ of men is most practically observable in the community of the Devadasis (or Joginis). This idea is demonstrated unequivocally in a saying in rural India that goes as ‘A Devadasi is a servant of God but a wife of the whole town.’
As ‘servants of God’, these women are disowned by the entire village and only used for the sexual gratification of all the men there, including the priests and the upper castes. Sexual abuse towards the lower caste women is one instance where the religious ideas of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ are disregarded by the society in a culturally acceptable manner.
The United Nations identifies a broader idea of slavery as follows:
[A]ny institution or practice whereby a child or a young person under the age of 18 is delivered by either or both of his natural parents or by his guardian to another person, whether for reward or not, with a view to the exploitation of the child or young person.
The practice of ritual sexual slavery through theogamy has existed for several centuries in the ancient cultures across the world, including Africa, South Asia and even Europe, in many forms. What is astonishing, though, is the continuity of this practice in certain areas, primarily the Devadasi practice of Southern India, which successfully resisted many years of efforts of eradication.
Even in the twenty-first century, it is unfortunate to witness large sections of an ostensibly democratic Indian society being affected by the trappings of ignorant, discriminatory and unjust practices like the Jogini system. The practice has persisted in the deep recesses of southern India, has claimed the lives of women and has been perpetuated in the lives of their progeny.
What are the key reasons for this?
Poverty, lack of proper health care, social exclusion and systemic caste and gender exploitation is a daily reality for the girls initiated as Joginis. Fuelled by caste, patriarchy and inefficient legislation, the immediate future for the existing Joginis seems rather bleak.
The existence of the Jogini system in today’s state should serve as a bold headline for those left behind in the mainstream discourse of development.
—Excerpt taken from Sexual Slavery: A Case Study of Joginis in South India from ANTYAJAA