While the existing devadasis continue to suffer repercussions of their dedication, the children of Devadasis too face and grapple with the undeserved struggles that have become bitter remnants of the past – a past which risks ruining their present and future.
According to a study conducted by Sampark, 62 of 70 Devadasi respondents reported that they had children. When asked if they had ever considered dedicating their children, all made it clear that they would never wish such a life upon their children. Yet, the wishes of a few suffering, helpless women are not what society considers. Despite the practice being illegal, young female children are pressured to become Devadasis to support their families. More often than not, the Devadasi and her children are ostracised by the village community, forcing them to live a life of neither respect nor acceptance.
In terms of education, the scenario isn’t great either. Even if one ignores the uncivil comments passed, these children are usually deprived of a good education. The figure below illustrates the answers to the question, “Have your children been educated?” A whopping 23 mentioned that not all of their children had completed schooling, and 12 respondents said that none of their children had. The main reasons cited for non-completion of even primary levels of education were usually a lack of financial security, which forced them to drop out and contribute economically. Another frequently cited reason was the lack of interest from students.
Additionally, the documentation process in most institutions mandates the filing of the father’s name but not the mother’s. Devadasi children are neither allowed to take the names of their fathers nor exercise a right over their properties.
This brings forth the challenge of inheritance and maintenance. While these are important rights in civil law, in the case of Devadasis, since there is no marriage, the children traditionally are considered to be born out of wedlock and are the children of the Devadasi alone. There is an operational hurdle too. Since some Devadasis may cohabit with more than one partner, there are difficulties in ascertaining parentage, responsibility and benefits. The onus of proving parentage is also upon Devadasis which is difficult and compounded by the social dynamics (NCW 2016).
There is thus, at least societally, no onus on the partner to provide for the child. In fact, in the study conducted by Sampark, 42% of respondents mentioned that their partners did not provide for the children at all, while some had not even seen their faces. Similarly, in the NCW study, 82% of Devadasis themselves opined that their children were not able to inherit the property of the father or use their name, while only 6% asserted that they are expected to inherit (NCW 2016). This deprives the children of crucial financial support and assets that could assist social mobility but instead places the burden of care entirely on the Devadasi who is usually already economically vulnerable herself.
What Needs to be Done?
Out of the overall help and support that is provided to Devadasis and their children, the majority comes from NGOs and through informal sources; no absolute help is received from the government especially in terms of rights, healthcare, education and law. Consequently, Devadasis have limited support systems; while the pension provided by the Government helps to a limited extent, more such systems need to be in place. One mechanism is to ensure that the Devadasi community can be channelized in support of each other. While the Government can play some role on this front, an important stakeholder to take this forward would be Civil Society Organizations. Apart from this, steps must be taken to legally ensure that Devadasis receive support from their partners. This can be done by recognizing the partners of Devadasis as has been done in the case of the Domestic Violence Act in the case of Live-in Relationships. The support thus garnered may not necessarily be beneficial directly for Devadasis but may aid them in the development of their children.
Education-wise, these children are eligible to join any course – medical, engineering, IAS, KAS, etc. For the children to have a good foundation, the government must develop measures that ensure that no child is left behind. This must include some form of financial incentives or reservations as well as support in terms of easing their enrolment and access to schooling and higher education. The existing scheme for daughters of Devadasis also needs to be further publicized and possibly reviewed to ensure improved uptake. They also need to be added as beneficiaries of schemes that children of other backward classes are eligible for.
Once a good foundation is laid through education, the next key step is to ensure access to good quality livelihoods which also ensures dignity of labour. To achieve this, there needs to be a targeted skill development approach. This will ensure that some of the challenges mentioned by Devadasis concerning their children accessing jobs can be overcome.