TV documentary ‘Sex, Death and the Gods’ shown on BBC Four recently, revealed the tragic reality of life as a devadasi in
Practically all devadasi are Dalits, falling below the caste system, which means they are often living in extreme poverty. Any form of ill-health results in economic pressures; the devastation of AIDS makes this unbearable in many instances.
The states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where devadasi is practised, have three of the four highest HIV infection rates in India. Recent research showed that almost 3,000 cases of HIV/AIDS were detected in one year among devadasis in Karnataka. Of these only 1 in 5 were receiving treatment; 86 had died during the year. In response to this, Dalit Freedom Network instituted a healthcare initiative which gives dignified care to sex workers with HIV/AIDS. It also provides education aimed at preventing disease to schoolchildren, pregnant women and village-dwellers in nearly 10,000 communities nationally; a large proportion of them are in Karnataka. With a focus on disease prevention, the healthcare initiative also frees Dalits from high healthcare bills forcing them into debt bondage and the trafficking industry.
DFN's HIV/AIDS clinic in Karnataka is engaged in a programme of awareness raising, education, diagnosis, counselling and treatment. The project, in which DFN partners with the state government of Karnataka, gives recognition to the importance of this work and is also an acknowledgement of the scale of the problem.
It takes a very special team and plenty of time to build a relationship with devadasi who are frightened of the stigma of AIDS, and to gain their trust. Over a three month period the team aims to:
The awareness programme is taken into schools for children aged 13 and over. Schools have been very grateful as no other agency has been running such a programme in that part of the state. A film on HIV/AIDS is shown in villages where it has proved very successful in communicating to villagers who are often illiterate. This is particularly true of Dalits who in the past have been denied education.
DFN has a Dalit Education Centre operating in the area providing quality education primarily to Dalit children. The benefit for children of devadasi is that a good education enables them to find better paid jobs so that they can help break free from the cycle of poverty and discrimination which makes them so vulnerable to trafficking and slavery.
Much of the money donated to DFN’s anti-trafficking work in
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