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The devadasi practice was first abolished during the British Raj under Lord Reading in 1925. Since then, many laws and policies have been proposed and passed to protect the rights of Devadasis. However, despite legal sanctions to combat the existence of the system, the Devadasi practice still prevails in different parts of modern India. 

Let us take a look at the laws and policies that are currently functioning at the central and state level in India.

National Legislation

As the Devadasi dedication is largely limited regionally, most of the legislation and policy action is undertaken at the State Government level. However, many national legislative instruments directly criminalise certain aspects of the practice, while several other instruments address other aspects.

LegislationHow Does it Address the Issue?

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1935
The minimum age for a valid marriage of a woman is 18 years, and a breach can lead to penalties including imprisonment and fines.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989
In 2015, the dedication of “a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe woman to a deity, idol, object of worship, temple, or other religious institution as a devadasi or any other similar practice” was added to the list of prohibited practices and made punishable. Penalties include a minimum imprisonment of six months and may extend up to five years with a fine. 

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956
Criminalisation of trafficking for sexual exploitation and a punishment of imprisonment up to 7 years with a fine. Penalties for different activities involving prostitution.

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

Under Section 2(f), the Act covers not only relationships arising out of marriage but also relationships between persons who live or have lived (at any point of time) together. The relationships between Devadasis and their partners often assume this character

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006

Penalization of offenders where the bride or bridegroom are below the statutory age. The Act also sets up a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer to undertake activities that prevent child marriages from occurring, including sensitization, counselling, and awareness building. 

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012
Protection of children from sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography and establishment of Special Courts for prosecution of offences under it.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015
The Act defines ‘child’ as one “who has been or is being or is likely to be abused, tortured or exploited for the purpose of sexual abuse or illegal acts”, thus applicable to Devadasis.
List of National Legislation that criminalizes many aspects of the Devadasi system

State Legislation

Several state governments, in the regions where the practice is prevalent, have enacted laws to abolish the Devadasi practice. These are: 

  • The Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, 1947, which is also referred to as the Tamil Nadu Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act
  • The Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act, 1947, and amended in 1988
  • The Karnataka State (Prevention of Dedication) Act, 1982, and amended in 2010 
  • Goa Children’s Act of 2003 (which contains a chapter on Devadasis)
  • The Maharashtra Devadasi System Abolition Act, 2005

In terms of objective, the laws are largely similar, in that they focus on preventing child sexual abuse or prohibiting dedication and caste based atrocities. However, few NGOs have been able to use the legal route to stop the practice as laws are poorly implemented and many families dedicate their daughters in secret (deeply.thenewhumanitarian). Smita Premchanger, Secretary, Sampark strongly advocates economic empowerment and social support as the best ways to tackle the problem at its root cause – poverty, caste and oppression. 

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