LAVANYA SINGH (NLU-D)
Devadasi literally means “female slave of god.” It is a religious institution that has been in existence since time immemorial, especially in the Southern Region of India. This institution compels a dalit household to dedicate their first female child to the temple through an elaborate traditional ceremony which usually takes place during the Yelamma festival, on the full moon at the beginning of the year. On completion of this ceremony, the child is considered to be married to the deity and is therefore prohibited from marrying anyone else. She becomes the property of the temple, known as sadha suhagan.
Devadasi was originally meant to be a sacred function of a female dalit child. The female child was to perform various tasks in the temple, including lighting lamps, preparation of the temples, dancing to serve the deities, and providing sexual contact for the priests. However, unlike the customary intention, today these divine females are compelled to perform only one function – to engage in sexual relations with men who visit the temple. Thus, Devadasi has correctly come to be known as an ‘institution of divine prostitution’.
Unfortunately, unlike other forms of prostitution, this institution has been socially sanctified and derives its legitimacy and authenticity from customs. It is considered a facet of religion, creating a psychological and social compulsion on Devadasis to continue working and making it almost impossible to abolish.
India is an original signatory to various International Conventions which completely prohibit any practice similar to that of Devadasi such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, The International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children and The Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Person and The Exploitation of Prostitutes.
The most evident and direct violation is that of The Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Person and The Exploitation of Prostitutes, 1951. Article 1 lays down that the Parties to the present convention agree to punish any person who, to gratify the passions of another procures, entices or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person or exploits the prostitution of another person, even with the consent of that person. Also, each Party to Convention has technically agreed to take all the necessary measures to repeal or abolish any existing law, regulation or administrative provision by virtue of which persons who engage in or are suspected of engaging in prostitution are subject either to special registration or to the possession of a special document or to any exceptional requirements for supervision or notification. Along with that, the signatories undertake to adopt, in accordance with its Constitution, the legislative or other measures necessary to ensure the application of the Convention.
There have been various attempts to abolish Devadasi through legislation. The original legislation was enacted in Bombay in 1934, known as the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act, 1934. Other than that there is The Hindu Religious and Charitable Domain Act, initially in enacted in Mysore and later extended.
After Indian Independence, what is now the State of Karnataka enacted the Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Madras Act, 1947. Later, Karnataka enacted The Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act. Following Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh established an analogous Act, the Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act of 1988. In 2005, The Maharashtra Devadasi System (Abolition) Act was enacted.
Despite these legislative efforts, there is no effective mechanism in place currently that actively prevents this institution, which is in essence prostitution. Till date, nobody has been punished for the practice of Devadasi. The National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) documented that 250,000 girls had been dedicated as Devadasis to temples on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, 411 including 16,624 girls from Andhra Pradesh, 22,941 from Karnataka and 2,479 Maharashtra. It is evident that there has been a gross miscarriage of justice and violation of human rights of all these 250,000 or more girls who have been dedicated as sexual slaves in the name of religion.
The pertinent question that now arises is that despite various statutes and conventions, why has the law failed? One must remember that the women compelled into this divine prostitution are all from dalit families and the existing structures in our society act as an obstacle in the prevention Devadasi. Our society has reached a stage where it’s so in tune with the structures that have historically existed that any radical change is a mammoth task.
Furthermore, the inability of the government to enforce the law and the lack of awareness amongst victims creates an even bigger problem. There is no effective mechanism which exists in our country that ensures the prevention, prohibition or rehabilitation of Devadasis.
Apart from this, legislations have to a certain extent created loopholes within themselves, leading to difficulty in preventing such practices. For example, not a single FIR has been registered under The Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, as the law makers have made this offence non-cognizable, which means that an FIR cannot be registered or investigated upon by a police officer without a court order. This has made the procedure extremely troublesome in practice.
It is evident that the existence of such an institution is a violation of human rights and in effect a gross miscarriage of justice. There is a need for an effective mechanism to enforce the law and help in the prohibiting, prevention and rehabilitation of Devadasis. This failure of law can be attributed to what can been referred to as ‘Governmental Lawlessness in India’, while we may have the finest and well thought out laws, we fail when it comes to implementation and enforcement. The government needs to realise that Devadasi isn’t a ‘dying institution,’ as they often call it. The multi dimensional problems related to Devadasi need to be recognized and effectively tackled.
 NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF INDIA, A REPORT ON TRAFFICKING IN WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN INDIA, 194-96 (2003).
. Caroline lalou.“What future for the devadasis and their children?” 3 THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF CHILDREN’S RIGHTS 19-50(1995).
 Soma Das, Strangely Mirrored Lives, THE HINDU ,May 6, 2007,Available at http://www.hindu.comlmag/2007/05/06/stories/2007050600200400.htm . (last visited, 6th July 2013).
 ANDREA PARROT AND NINA CUMMINGS, SEXUAL ENSLAVEMENT OF GIRLS AND WOMEN WORLD WIDE, 48-49 (2nded, Greenwood Publishing House) (2008).
 Article 1, Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, 96 U.N.T.S. 271, entered into force July 25, 1951
 Article 6, The Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Person and The Exploitation of Prostitutes, 1951.
 Article 27, The Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Person and The Exploitation of Prostitutes, 1951.
 Project Combat, launched to eradicate ‘DEVADASI system,THE HINDU, January 30, 2006, http://www.hindu.com/2006/01/30/stories/2006013020130300.htm IN Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN, “Human Rights in India Status Report 2012 Prepared for India’s second Universal Periodic review at the United Nations”, available at http://www.wghr.org/pdf/Status%20report%2023.05%20version.pdf (last visited, 6th July 2013).
 UPENDRA BAXI, THE CRISIS OF THE INDIAN LEGAL SYSTEM, 29, (Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi,1982).