Updated: Sep 8, 2020
“Often, I still curse my mother. Because of that woman, my life has been wrecked.”
'But how could you do that (dedicate your daughters) when you were so angry with your own mother for dedicating you? You just said yourself this is undignified work.”
(“The Daughters of Yellamma,” in Nine Lives, William Dalrymple)
Back in February, we celebrated Greg's birthday. We have a little tradition in formal moments at the office. When we celebrate someone (a birthday, going away party) we tell them what we like about them, out loud, in a group. A couple of rescued girls wanted to share about how they felt about Greg after the cake was cut and the cards handed out.
“I don't have a father, Greg is like a father to me. He protects me. When it was New Years, he invited me to celebrate with his family, because I don't have a family. It was late, he dropped me at home because it wasn't safe outside. He cares about my safety.”
Suddenly she burst out crying uncontrollably. She hid her face in my lap. Greg and I exchange a look. The pain is hard to bear and difficult to prepare for. At the most normal of times, a birthday celebration, there is this huge, unexpected anguish. We are all there to share in it, accountant Jenitha, fundraiser Tanya, writer Susan, social worker Shanthi, and office cleaner Maniama. We sit quietly, and several women translate for us, since, after fifteen years Greg and I are still shamefully illiterate in Indian languages.
Greg's birthday had raised her memories of abandonment and lack of safety in her family. Perhaps her own family sold her and committed the ultimate betrayal, I don't know. I only know that for the girls who are rescued in Freedom Firm, Greg and the very few men in the organization become the good men, fathers, and brothers they have not had. They are held as extremely precious and prized above all relationships. As no human can live up to that kind of hero-worship, it's also interesting to watch their immediate forgiveness when the “good men” are less than perfect.
How can parents sell their own children? While inconceivable to most of us, we know it's true and happens in our world today. A high school friend of mine in Georgia told me about a girl in her middle school who was being pimped by her mom. Middle school. America. With our work rescuing girls for the last 15 years in India, stories of girls sold by their parents are far too frequent. I would say, a large percentage of the girls we rescue are sold directly to the brothel by their parents.
We have all heard of the economic pressures that can cause families to sell their children. Most of the time it is financial debt, or need for medical supplies, or fears that they cannot afford a decent wedding and dowry that create such an extreme crisis in the family that they may see no other solution.
But deeper and more insidious are the traditions in India that culturally and religiously sanction child prostitution. In the Devadasi system, girls are dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma by their parents at a very young age. Once the girl is married to the Goddess she cannot marry a mortal. While once part of the “temple” prostitution and dancing rituals, today the Devadasi system is simply a fast track to commercial sexual exploitation.
Women that are Devadasi may never “marry” but of course they do have children. The likelihood of their daughters becoming Devadasi as well is very high. Girls go through a marriage ritual at the age of six, dressed fully in bridal clothes and makeup. Then they are free to grow up normally until puberty when the mother arranges the rape of her daughter to the highest bidder, which is exactly what happened to her when she was little. Thus the custom is honored and passed through the ages from one generation to the next.
When asked “Why would you do something that hurts your daughter, when you hated what was done to you?” The mother will typically answer, “I had no choice.”
Marked out from other women by the 1000-year-old tradition, scarred and brutalized by society's excuse for prostitution, and hardened by trauma and evil that at first they did not choose, Devadasi mothers do, in turn, pass on, brand, scar, brutalize and sell their own daughters, who, in turn, will do the same to their daughters, creating generation after generation of husbandless outcastes. They will say to their daughters, “This is your dharma, your duty, your work. It is inauspicious to cry.” (Daughters of Yellama, Dalrymple)
It is impossible to explain further, except to point you to a deeper research of Hinduism and the customs it has created in order to keep society in different strata, or castes. So the Devadasis are really a caste of prostitutes, just as there are also castes of shoemakers, candlemakers, and leatherworkers.
Breaking out of that belief system is almost impossible. Mothers sell their daughters because they don't see an alternative. No one will marry their daughters. How can they make a living? They have to eat.
I think a huge part of what we are doing here in Freedom Firm is providing alternatives. Saying, no, actually, there are other choices you can make. Your daughter can study. Your daughter can make jewelry, your daughter can break free. You don't have to sell your daughter. Isn't that what we, the privileged, the casteless, can do?
In the meantime, we act as surrogate parents to the girls who pass through our care, and every now and then glimpse the awesome responsibility of bearing that privilege.