Kalavathy was nine years old when she was married to Goddess Yellamma and was told she could never marry a man. "They asked me whether I wanted to be a devadasi, and I said yes. I did not know what it meant to be one," says Kalavathy, now 36.
It did not take her long to become wiser about her future. Packed off to Karad in Maharashtra to be inducted in the sex trade at the age of 12, she delivered a baby girl at 14. "I beat off many men initially, but soon realised I had nowhere to go… that this was my life," says Kalavathy. She did not want the same fate for her daughter and volunteered to work as a community health worker with the Chaitanya Mahila Sangha in 1996.
Earlier this week, she was one of the few devadasis who met Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy to showcase successful community interventions that have helped empower devadasis in the state. Though dedicating girls as devadasis was banned under the Karnataka Devadasi Prohibition Act 1982, stray incidents still occur. "The Sangha has stopped 12 dedications in the last one year alone," says Kalavathy.
Under the Sangha, 40 women's self-help groups have been formed, each with 10-16 members who work to empower devadasi women.
"We give devadasis information on HIV prevention, children's education and alternative sources of livelihoods," says Kalavathy. She does not want other young girls to have the same fate as her. Her daughter does not share her fate and is married with a baby girl. The Sangha has also helped several devadasi women become economically independent.
"A few years ago, a devadasi could not think of going to a bank for loan. Recently, one of our groups took a bank loan of Rs 50,000 and shared it. Two constructed a house together, four bought goats, two started making mats and two opened small shops," says Renuka Devamani, another Sangha member.