INDIA || “Why are the Devadasi unable to access healthcare?”

Visalaakshi Annamalai, APMA 2018

The Devadasi[i] tradition is prevalent in many parts of India despite it being outlawed. It involves the practice of dedicating women and girls to the temple by their families. They are considered as servants of God and were given a high position in social strata in the past. Since they were dedicated to the Divine, they were forbidden from marrying an earthly being. Most of them were involved in the arts, music, serving the Divine, and more recently, in sex work.

Today[ii], women involved in this practice have been exploited extensively. Most of these women combat many ills of the society single-handedly. A wide range of rights of these women are violated. These include the right to education, the right to choose their occupation, the right to marry, the right against discrimination, the right to lead a life with dignity, the right to health and many more even as these are rights that are guaranteed and protected under both national and international laws. They live in poverty and are vulnerable to health issues. There is also an issue of intersectionality as these are women who form part of other vulnerable groups. The focus of this documentation, however, will be on the violation of the right to health of these women with specific reference to the case of Rani Bai, a Devadasi.

Rani Bai, like most women, was dedicated at the age of six. Devadasis are associated sexually with multiple partners, and many times participate in unsafe intercourse. This makes them prone to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). There is a high probability that they undergo many abortions at a very young age due to the aforementioned fact. This also contributes to under nourishment and iron deficiencies.

When Rani Bai is asked about her concerns on getting infected with STDs, she says there is an element of fear always. She also seems aware of the fact that even with the use of condoms, there can still be a possibility that she gets infected with AIDS[iii]. It looks like she has acknowledged the fact that she cannot escape it. She has watched both her daughters[iv], as well as at least six of her friends die. The issue of STDs is not new to these women. They see it happen to their kin, and are also deeply affected by it. Rani Bai herself has fallen victim to the disease. The writer, after a conversation with an NGO shows that the reaction of the Devadasi families to AIDS is terrible. The families are happy to live off their income, however, when they are infected, they leave them to die. There is fear; there is trauma, and vulnerability to high health risks. These women are at grave risk, both mentally and physically. Even if they are not infected with a disease, there are chances of mental health challenges.

The fact that these women are unable to access the healthcare provided by the State shows that the State has failed in its obligation to protect and fulfill the complete realization of the right in question.

General Comment No. 14 to the right to health under the ICESCR encompasses both freedoms and entitlements. The freedoms include sexual and reproductive freedom and the right to be free from interference. The entitlement includes the right to a health protection system which provides equal opportunities for people to enjoy the best level of health. The State must make available facilities for the realization of this right. The facilities may be made available by the State; however, the accessibility of these facilities can be contested when it comes to vulnerable groups.

There is also a right to prevention, treatment, and control of diseases. The State has to establish preventive mechanisms to combat different kinds of diseases. In addition, the document stresses the importance of the right to health of women specifically. The State should adopt strategies that are aimed at preventing and treating diseases that affect women. It also notes that the State should shield women from harmful cultural practices that deny them their rights. All of these can be made applicable to the Devadasis. Despite these provisions, however, with India being a party to the ICESCR, and having a few laws in place domestically, the Devadasi practice persists.

There are laws[v] prohibiting and criminalizing dedication in three States in India. These laws, also known as Central Laws, provide policies on child labour, juvenile justice, and the penal code. This shows that the law is more focused on removing the practice rather than addressing the root of the problem. Apart from this, there are provisions in State law for the rehabilitation of Devadasis. With the help of self-help groups and NGOs, the government tried to expand the benefits of various schemes to these women[vi]. Nonetheless, there are limitations to these strategies, which have led to a failure of its complete realization. The State does not seem to have intervened at any level in the lives of these women to help them realize their rights. Although there is a case of progressive realization, the excuse cannot apply to this instance as it is a minimum core obligation. Since the State is allowing the practice, it must follow minimum standards of health to protect these women from STDs. Even so, there seems to be no specific health policy in place to address this issue.

There are a number of women who are victims of this practice even today and most of them are unaware of these laws[vii]. If Rani Bai knew these laws, what stopped her from making use of it? Or did she not know these laws at all? Women like her should be lifted out of their miseries. This can happen only through education and awareness, which is insufficient or non-existent.

The major gap identified, aside from the non-implementation of the law, is the problem of awareness. The State should take a proactive approach to spread awareness about STDs, the need for safe sex, and alternatives to the possible exploitations.

There is always a heavy focus on issues like trafficking, prostitution, education, poverty, exploitation, child marriage and rape laws linked to the system. Strangely, the right to health of these women is addressed only superficially. None of these laws provide for a right to health explicitly. It is all derived from general provisions of the Indian Constitution and its interpretation.  What the State has failed to do in effect, is to respect and protect the rights of these women, considering the results are not achieved. The fact that there are women who are still affected is proof that the right has not been fully realized. The State is duty-bound to alleviate violations of the right to health of these women. While responsibility can be pinned to the state, the law and the state cannot really stand alone in the elimination of a practice that is deeply rooted in society. Although the state has fulfilled its obligation of conduct, the obligation of result is in question. For complete realization, the state, the law and the society must function and act accordingly.

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[i] It is the process of initiating the woman or the girl into the Devadasi Community through a ceremony.

[ii] It started with the Mughal invasion which caused the death of many Hindu Temples. Since they were tied to these temples, they lost their patronage. This led to the disintegration of their status in the society.

[iii] Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

[iv] The writer later finds out that her daughters died of AIDS.

[v] Devadasi Samarpan Nishedhan Act 1982; Bombay Devadasi Protection Act 1982; Andhra Pradesh Devadasis (Prohibiting Dedication)Act 1989; Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication )Act 1947; Devadasi Prohibition of Dedication Act 1992.

[vi] Exploitation Of Women As Devadasis And Its Associated Evils – Volume II, 2016. (National Commission for Women). New Delhi.

[vii] Ibid.

 Photo from the Times of India.

*This opinion piece was written in 2018. The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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