Forty-six-year-old Sitavva Joddati remains unmoved by her Padma Shri honour. She says her reward is the outcome of her work. She was given the national award for her efforts to eradicate the ‘Devadasi’ system and Sitavva says that she is simply glad to have saved hundreds of innocent girls. Sitavva from Kabbur village in Chikkodi Taluk is the sixth daughter to her parents, who belong to a backward community. She was ‘promised’ as a Devadasi by her parents, who believed that giving the youngest daughter of a family to the service of God would reward them a son. When she turned seven, she was put through a religious ritual, after which a pearl was tied to her neck at a temple in the district. This was a practice in north Karnataka to declare a child as a Devadasi to the larger community. The message was that she was dedicated to the service of God and that she could be sexually exploited by anyone. Sitavva did not know anything about this profession or what was expected of her, and by 17 she was the mother of three children. In 1991, she met Latamala who helped her understand how vulnerable she was. Latamala, who was the Managing Director of the Women Development Corporation, made her realize how harmful this practice was to her and other girls like her, and Sitavva decided to save herself. She had realized that this custom was an affront to the dignity of women.
Sitavva started to think about her and her children’s future and was shocked to know how poorly people around her thought of her and her family. She realized that she was living differently from other women and her children from other children. Sitavva, who along with other Devadasis used to attend religious jatras (fairs) in north Karnataka and south Maharashtra, started speaking about the evil in this practice in her group. Most of the other women in her group were fed up with this line of work too, and this discontent grew into a secret campaign among Devadasis. The number of dissenters touched 45 within a week. Later, Sitavva left to Gokak taluk and joined ‘Mahila Abhivrudhi Samrakshana Sansthe’ (MASS), an organization working to eradicate the Devadasi system. She settled in Ghataprabha village in the taluk.So far, she as an individual has managed to rescue 4,000 women from this practice and has helped them start on another job. These women further convinced other women and they work together to put a stop to this practice, which secretly lives on in few places in the district.Former Devadasis now campaign mainly among the economically backward Dalit families in backward villages in Gokak, Savadatti, Raibag, Athani, and Chikkodi taluks in Belagavi and its neighbouring taluks in Vijayapura and Bagalkot districts. The group has a strong network who alert other members and government officials if any family is considering giving away their daughters, and they rush to stop the parents.MASS members say that thousands of girls are safe and leading a safer life thanks to Sitavva. Even after the award was conferred, Sitavva did not see how her work was extraordinary. She says that she is simply doing this so that other girls do not suffer the pain and insult she had experienced.
Work: Fights to rescue girls from the Devadasi system
‘Rich collude with temple priests to exploit young girls’
Sitavva, who does not like to talk about her past in the profession, says that she joined MASS when she was 17. According to her, many economically backward Dalit families believe that a goddess’ curse would be lifted from their family if a young and unmarried daughter was dedicated to her service. Families believe that they would then be blessed with prosperity and good luck. Sitavva says that many rich people in villages collude with heads of such temples to get young girls they want, and families blindly trust their community heads. She said despite police security and constant vigil of their group’s members, the practice of tying a pearl around a girl’s neck still continues in many jatras. She says that even poojaris are involved in this scam because they make an income out of this. Siddawwa who has been working with MASS for 28 to 30 years now holds rich people chiefly responsible for the continuation of this practice, and the poojaris who get the girls to them.
Tags: Sitavva Joddati | Karnataka-Based Social Activist | Empowerment of Women | Devadasi System | Padma Sri | CEO of MASS