Women’s day is past but women from different parts and corners of India still have to fight it out to make their position strong in the society and have a stable, peaceful and respectful life.
For Mahananda in Kappalguddi, a village in India, opportunity to save her poor mother from serious illness was offered but she had to pay a big price for giving her mother her life back. At the age of 16, when her mother was sick, her uncles offered her monetary help that amounted to Rupees 3000 but as she being a teenager could not pay the money back, her uncles sought another cruel way to get back the amount. They made her a Devadasi, or a temple slave where neither was she allowed to marry anyone in her life nor her future generation could ever come out of the torments of slavery and sexual exploitation.
When she was fettered in the shackles of sexual abuse, she probably did not even know what was about to happen to her as she was sold to a trader in Sangli for sex trade. She was enslaved as a Devadasi, a practice that had been deemed as illegal way back in the 1980s but is still used and misused to sell and enslave girls, only to harass them sexually. The social stigma in the country around devadasis has been such that they are being denied employment and even cannot save their children from getting drawn into this vicious circle of ruthlessness and crime.
The figures would shock you: while 91 per cent of devadasis are illiterate, 93 per cent are unmarried. 200 girls and women are made to become prostitutes daily where 80 per cent are unwilling.
Mahananda was another victim of this evil system and could not do much at that time when she was forced into it, given her age and inexperience of the world’s culprits. She had to spend three years, not at her home but at a brothel house. Earlier, she had been able to save her mother, but now it was time to save herself. But how could she? Days of hope and brighter future evaded her in those three years until one fine day, she could finally plead with the brothel owner and convince the person to let her go, now that she was a mother.
However, as she had been already labelled a ‘whore’ by the society, it was difficult for her to find a life for herself anywhere outside the brothel. Neither could she marry anyone because Devadasis are not supposed to marry anyone and nobody comes ahead to marry these women nor could she do a job of her own choice.
So, Mahananda set out to win back her respect and dignity in the society and to give her daughters a life of their own, a respectable prestigious position in the society that could only be possible through education.
She began with a sewing enterprise which has now been running for four years and her daughters are studying in Morarji Residential School for free. While the older daughter, Rekha is pursuing her science course before joining a university and wants to make a career in medicine, the younger one, Puja is set to have her goals right for her career and life ahead. She plans to study science and is currently studying in the 8th class.
At the age of 34, Mahananda has been capable enough of employing four other former devdasis in her sewing business. After all, she could not have let her daughters be turned into devadasis as she believes that girls should be given the right to prosper and this is why she has put much efforts and pain in bringing up her daughters so that they can enjoy the good life where there is much happiness and prosperity, the things she was denied.
As and how her daughters are growing and are looking forward to college admission, Mahananda felt she needed to earn more. She applied for an enterprise loan through Milaap’s Hope Project to buy three more sewing machines which she has put to use after employing former devadasis. She has even executed a small training programme where she teaches 10 other former devadasis to sew and charges them Rupees 100 on a monthly basis. Since her sewing gig is not enough to fend her funds, she also works on farms in the morning, as her village is a remote one and does not let her earn much only through tailoring business.
Though she had been constantly pecked at and misbehaved with by the society, the ray of hope in her was alive and she put it to a good use by giving her daughters a life better in every sense than hers. Her love as a mother for her daughters and as a woman in understanding the importance of educating girls is far beyond the ills of the society and the twisted mind-set of people. She has not said it, but done it; she has empowered other women like herself who also needed a breakthrough, a new hope and reason to live a better life and mark a new beginning in their way of living.
In her journey towards freedom, Mahananda has come across an activist, Sitava who attempts at helping former Devadasis get back a normal, healthy life and also got training and financial help through a membership organization comprising of devadasi women, called Mahila Abhivrudhi Samrakshana Samsthe or MASS that has been in the business of promoting development and a healthy living for devadasi women in Belgaum district, Karnataka. This institute now holds more than 5000 devadasis together and has helped to assimilate their lives to make them as normal as possible. This organization has been working towards eradicating the devadasi system altogether and empowering women and girls exploited in this system for commercial sexual harassment under the disguise of making them devadasis.
This is the organization that aided her in crowd-funding a microloan which helped her in running her sewing enterprise all these years effectively.
Mahananda has been among women who have battled through the socio-economic hassles and setbacks only so that she could protect her children from serving as devadasis or be harassed by the evil society in the name of giving them a life. There are many like her in rural India who have been victims of such horrendous crimes and ruthlessness and have had to seek training as well as financial support to become proud women entrepreneurs and trendsetters, building other such women’s lives along with empowering their own children, dismantling the stigma and barriers the society had set, thus revolting and rebelling against the entire system.
We can only live the spirit of Women’s day in the true sense and make it truly happy and worthwhile if we can garner support for these women from their own brethren, identify and appreciate their painstaking efforts and boost their confidence for a brighter, more hopeful future.
After all, it is hope that has kept the world in its place.
Hope against all odds and adversities!