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- Despite being prohibited by law, in the Asian country there are still many poor families who 'offer' their daughters to a divinity, thus forcing them to become prostitutes. Some of them manage to get out of that slavery thanks to an NGO project.
"I was 11 years old and at home they had organized a puja (religious ceremony). Everything was very nice and I was the center of attention. A party for me. But when it was over they took me to the house of the gharwali, the lady in charge of Brothel, I was afraid, I didn't want anyone to touch me and I escaped, and I went outside all night, the next morning I returned to my house, thinking that they were going to hit me, but when I arrived they were very kind to me. they stroked and took me to a room. Everything was dark. There was a man in there. And they closed the door with a padlock. "
Laxmi is 30 years old, eyes sweet and torn and ears full of earrings. His gaze turns sad as he shakes his head and tells how his life was ruined when he was offered to the Indian goddess of fertility, Yellamma . Curse the day she became a devdasi or slave of the goddess .
Although the law prohibits it since the end of 1998, in southern India it is still common for many families, especially of the lower caste (Dalit) and extremely poor, to offer their daughters to a goddess. Officially, to make them slaves of divinity . The reality is that they condemn them to a life of prostitution. "In the villages there are still people who believe that sleeping with these sacred prostitutes is a religious practice," explains Arun Pandey , of the NGO Arz , a partner of the Italian WeWorld , who is dedicated to rescuing women and children around the world.
Today, the devdasi are part of the networks of sexual exploitation . "Those who still practice this rite live below the level of survival. And the phenomenon has been passed from villages to cities for simple economic reasons," adds Pandey , who works in the small state of Goa , famous for its splendid beaches, goal of tourists from all over the world. Here, in the city of Vasco , there is a whole red-light neighborhood of very young Devdasi.
"My mother used to tell me: your father drinks, we don't have anything to eat, why don't you want to help your family?" Laxmi explains. And he adds: "To convince me he gave me dresses and took me to the hairdresser. In the end I gave up and said: 'Better me than my sister; at least one of the two can get married.'"
And it is that devdasi are prohibited from getting married because they are sacred women , but when there are no male children in families, they are allowed to inherit . In a culture like that of India, deeply patriarchal and where feminicide is still common, the least educated and the most desperate see in this practice a way of salvation. At least in theory. "Despite my sacrifice, my sister Sunita was also offered to the goddess. Today she is an alcoholic woman and destroyed inside. If she had not been forced to prostitute herself she would not have reached that situation, in which the bottle is her only way he has to face the pain, "says Laxmi .
She, on the other hand, found her salvation among the white clothes of a laundry called SwiftWash , an initiative of the WeWorld association that gives work not only to the Devdasi, but also to their families and, in some cases, to the people who They took care of the brothels. It is a task that does not require a special qualification and that allows women to work together and maintain a constant flow of orders, thanks to the restaurants and hotels in the area that use their services.
"At the beginning we were wondering how ignorant prostitutes were going to run their business. Today we have enough work to give not only the devdasi a chance, but also the people who managed the brothels, eradicating the phenomenon and avoiding new victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, " Pandey explains. The result is being spectacular. In a few years, the offer of girls to the goddess has disappeared from this area of India.
Decisive in the process was the creation of a group of men, sons and brothers of the Devdasi, who explained that the life of their mothers and sisters, presented as a religious practice, was actually a refined instrument of exploitation that condemned them to violence and diseases .
This is how L. was saved, who is 28 years old and was offered to the goddess when she hadn't even turned 10. "My mother and my aunt are devdasi. I lived in the village with my grandmother, studied and was happy. But my mother , who worked in Vasco, asked for a loan of 15,000 rupees (190 euros) from the director of the brothel and, as I could not return it, she called me, telling me to go see her, because she was sick. I did not want to, because it was the time of exams, but she insisted. When I arrived and saw that she was fine, she explained that the aunt had been beaten to death with a chappal [a shoe], and that we had to do a ceremony for her. "
"It was the trick my mother used to become a sacred prostitute. It was enough for three other devdasi to join her in the offering ceremony." L. was rescued later by one of the youth of the Pandey NGO, who reported her case to the police. "My life was ruined, but now things are going better. I am a supervisor in the laundry. I know that I can face what life has in store for me. It is true that I still feel a lot of anger against my mother, for having made me suffer so much. Life will be better for my children, who are five and six years old, because they will study. "
For these women, salvation is economic independence , but also psychological , which allows them to overcome their traumas, as Juliana Lohar , the social worker who keeps track of them, says: "We work with the police, in the rehabilitation centers, with the children and family members, who have to get used to a new situation. We have interested all civil society and the initiative is paying off. What is it or more difficult? Help the devdasi overcome their guilt and become to feel proud of themselves. "
Bhimavva is a small woman, but she has a confident look, which attracts attention in the middle of her delicate heart-shaped face, crowned with a slightly curly hairstyle. As he speaks, he plays with his bangles, the clinking bracelets similar to those given to him when he was offered to the goddess. "I was 14 years old and I had never had so many dresses and jewels before. They put the sacred necklace on my neck and repeated Yellama's name five times. During the following month nothing happened. But one day they took me to a house and locked me up. locked in a room. Inside was a man much older than me. " His bracelets stop ringing and he adds: 2 I ran next to my mother, screaming and crying. But she replied: 'Your father is an alcoholic, who will take care of your brothers and sisters? You are the oldest. Is your obligation".
Two years later, already released and living in a family's house, it is hard to trust. But thanks to SwiftWash , in a short time he learns to write, organize shifts and receive orders. Now he even knows how to use the computer. When asked how he managed to revolutionize his life, he shrugs: "I would never have been able to dream that I would be able to use a PC. I do it for my son. I want him to be proud of his mother."
And yes, surely he felt proud when Bhimavva won, a few months ago, a national award for entrepreneurship . "For me it was simply something incredible, something that my mind refused to accept. But after receiving the award I said: 'I have worked very hard and now I know that I am a woman with a different life than what they wanted for me'" , he assures.
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