Women Who Lived as Sex Slaves to Indian Goddess

Dedicated to an Indian goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual servitude began when her uncle took her virginity, raping her in exchange for a saree and some jewellery.

Bhimappa was not yet 10 years old when she became a “devadasi” — girls coerced by their parents into an elaborate wedding ritual with a Hindu deity, many of whom are then forced into illegal prostitution.

Devadasis are expected to live a life of religious devotion, forbidden from marrying other mortals, and forced at puberty to sacrifice their virginity to an older man, in return for money or gifts.

“In my case, it was my mother’s brother,” Bhimappa, now in her late 40s, told AFP.

What followed was years of sexual slavery, earning money for her family through encounters with other men in the name of serving the goddess.

Bhimappa eventually escaped her servitude but with no education, she earns around a dollar a day toiling in fields.

Her time as a devotee to the Hindu goddess Yellamma has also rendered her an outcast in the eyes of her community.

She had loved a man once, but it would have been unthinkable for her to ask him to marry.

“If I was not a devadasi, I would have had a family and children and some money. I would have lived well,” she said.

Devadasis have been an integral part of southern Indian culture for centuries and once enjoyed a respectable place in society.

Many were highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, lived comfortable lives and chose their own sexual partners.

“This notion of more or less religiously sanctioned sexual slavery was not part of the original system of patronage,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.

Iyer said that in the 19th century, during the British colonial era, the divine pact between devadasi and goddess evolved into an institution of sexual exploitation.

It now serves as a means for poverty-stricken families from the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to relieve themselves of responsibility for their daughters.

The practice was outlawed in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka back in 1982, and India’s top court has described the devotion of young girls to temples as an “evil.”

Campaigners, however, say that young girls are still secretly inducted into devadasi orders.

Four decades after the state ban, there are still more than 70,000 devadasis in Karnataka, India’s human rights commission wrote last year.

‘I was alone’

Girls are commonly seen as burdensome and costly in India due to the tradition of wedding dowries.

By forcing daughters to become devadasis, poorer families gain a source of income and avoid the costs of marrying them off.

Many households around the small southern town of Saundatti — home to a revered Yellamma temple — believe that having a family member in the order can lift their fortunes or cure the illness of a loved one.

It was at this temple that Sitavva D. Jodatti was enjoined to marry the goddess when she was eight years old.

Her sisters had all married other men, and her parents decided to dedicate her to Yellamma in order to provide for them.

“When other people get married, there is a bride and a groom. When I realized I was alone, I started crying,” Jodatti, 49, told AFP.

Her father eventually fell ill, and she was pulled out of school to engage in sex work and help pay for his treatment.

“By the age of 17, I had two kids,” she said.

Rekha Bhandari, a fellow former devadasi, said they had been subjected to a practice of “blind tradition” that had ruined their lives.

She was forced into the order after the death of her mother and was 13 when a 30-year-old man took her virginity. She fell pregnant soon after.

“A normal delivery was difficult. The doctor yelled at my family, saying that I was too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old told AFP.

“I had no understanding.”

‘Many women have died’

Years of unsafe sex exposed many devadasis to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

“I know of women who are infected and now it has passed on to their children,” an activist who works with devadasis, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

“They hide it and live with it in secrecy. Many women have died.”

Parents are occasionally prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be inducted as devadasis, and women who leave the order are given meagre government pensions of 1,500 rupees ($18) per month.

Nitesh Patil, a civil servant who administers Saundatti, told AFP that there had been no “recent instances” of women being dedicated to temples.

India’s rights commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to outline what they were doing to prevent the practice, after a media investigation found that devadasi inductions were still widespread.

The stigma around their pasts means women who leave their devadasi order often endure lives as outcasts or objects of ridicule, and few ever marry.

Many find themselves destitute or struggling to survive on poorly paid manual labor and farming work.

Jodatti now heads a civil society group which helped extricate the women AFP spoke to from their lives of servitude and provides support to former devadasis.

She said many of her contemporaries had several years ago become engrossed by the #MeToo movement and the personal revelations of celebrity women around the world that revealed them as survivors of sexual abuse.

“We watch the news and sometimes when we see famous people… we understand their situation is much like ours. They have suffered the same. But they continue to live freely,” she said.

“We have gone through the same experience, but we don’t get the respect they get.

“Devadasi women are still looked down upon.”

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UN Weekly Roundup: Jan. 21-27, 2023 

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this week, as seen from the United Nations’ perch.

UN deputy chief says Taliban’s desire for recognition is bargaining chip on rights

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said Wednesday that the international community’s best leverage to persuade the Taliban to reverse restrictions on Afghan women’s rights is the group’s desire for international recognition. She told reporters that the U.N. and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are discussing holding a conference in March in the region on women in the Muslim world. Mohammed led a high-level U.N. delegation to Afghanistan this past week.

Nuclear watchdog warns Iran has enough material for several nuclear bombs

International Atomic Energy Agency Chief Rafael Grossi warned Tuesday that Iran has accumulated “enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons.” Grossi told the European Parliament’s security and defense subcommittee in Brussels that his agency is no longer monitoring Iran’s nuclear program because the regime has disconnected 27 of the agency’s cameras installed at its declared nuclear sites. Grossi said he plans to travel to Tehran, Iran, next month.

No progress on international force for Haiti

The U.N. and the government of Haiti reiterated their appeal Tuesday for an international force to quickly deploy to the island nation to help subdue an unprecedented level of gang violence that has terrorized the population. In early October, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres backed a request from the Haitian government to send a force to address escalating insecurity and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

2023 global economic forecast looks gloomy

U.N. economists forecast a gloomy and uncertain outlook this year, with the global economy projected to grow at a very sluggish rate. The 2023 World Economic Situation and Prospects report, issued Wednesday, says a series of severe shocks have reduced global economic output to its lowest level in years, leaving many economies at risk of falling into recession. In good news, the authors say inflation appears to have peaked in some of the more advanced economies, and East and South Asia emerged as the report’s bright spots for growth.

Myanmar poppy production grows since military coup

A report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says Myanmar’s farmers are flocking back to opium poppy cultivation amid rising prices for the contraband crop and an economic decline that is wiping out jobs, reversing nearly a decade of poppy decreases. Myanmar is the world’s second-largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan, and the main source for most of East and Southeast Asia. UNODC says many people have resorted to poppy cultivation because jobs and investment have dried up following the military coup two years ago.

In brief

— U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is on a mission to Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya this week to advance joint priorities following December’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Her tour is focused on regional security issues, food insecurity, humanitarian issues, and supporting African efforts to mitigate climate change, a senior administration official said.

— This week, World Food Program Chief David Beasley is in Syria, where he raised the alarm on unprecedented levels of hunger. He said 12 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from, while an additional 2.9 million are at risk of sliding into hunger. Overall, due to conflict, COVID-19 and an economic crisis, 70% of the population might soon be unable to feed their families.

— The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a report released Friday that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that Syria’s Air Forces perpetrated a chemical weapons attack on April 7, 2018, in Douma, Syria. The OPCW said at least one helicopter of the Syrian “Tiger Forces” elite unit dropped two yellow cylinders containing toxic chlorine gas on two apartment buildings in a residential area of Douma, killing at least 43 people and affecting dozens more. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric condemned the use of chemical weapons and said, “it is imperative that those who use chemical weapons are identified and held accountable.”

Quote of note

“You have to remember that what happened before the Taliban came back was a huge amount of hope, and an expression of that hope with many women who got an education, who were in decision-making roles, who were leaders in Afghanistan, and now that’s dashed. And when that happens, the anxiety and the level of fear amongst women and their future is huge, it’s palpable.”

— U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed to reporters on the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban​

What we are watching next week

February 1 marks two years since the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, leading to protests and a crackdown on human rights. Since the coup, leaders and thousands of pro-democracy protesters have died or been jailed, and the humanitarian situation has worsened.

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No Evidence Russia Turning to Taliban for Arms, White House Says

Russia may be turning to more countries to resupply its military fighting in Ukraine, but the White House says it has no evidence to support published reports claiming that Moscow has asked the Afghan Taliban for help.

“I can’t confirm this report,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, told VOA during a briefing Friday. “But if it’s true, it certainly would fly in the face of what the Taliban say their goals are,” he added, pointing to the Taliban’s desire to be recognized internationally as the legitimate government in Afghanistan.

A 2022 Pentagon report confirmed that the fall of the U.S.-backed Afghan government following the August 2021 chaotic withdrawal of Western forces gave Taliban fighters access to more than $7 billion worth of American military equipment, what was left of $18.6 billion worth of weapons and other gear provided to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces from 2005 through August 2021.

The stockpile includes aircraft, vehicles, munitions, guns, communication equipment and other gear that Kirby and other officials emphasized was the property of the now-defunct Afghan government, not the United States. Most of the equipment used by American troops in Afghanistan was retrograded or destroyed, according to the Pentagon.

“We don’t have any indication of exactly where all those systems [in Taliban hands] are, how they’re being used,” Kirby said. “Certainly, we don’t have any indications that the Taliban is willing to export them.”

Zia Ahmad Takal, deputy spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied that the Taliban are providing Russia with weapons. Reports on the “demands for weapons is a lie,” he told VOA.

Attractive target

American weapons now in the hands of the Taliban are an attractive target for various actors looking for firepower.

“You’re going to have a lot of outside actors trying to poke around and get access to all of these weapons,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, a global policy research group in Washington.

“Whether the Taliban would actually be willing to provide these weapons to Russia, that to me seems a bit hard to believe,” he told VOA.

While an offer from Moscow cannot be ruled out, Kugelman said the Taliban are focused on building up their own military capacity. The group faces internal security threats from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group and various others, including the National Resistance Front.

Additionally, the Taliban armory may not be of much use for President Vladimir Putin’s war ambitions, since there aren’t many weapons that would be useful in the war in Ukraine, where Russia relies heavily on long-range attacks using unguided weapons, like howitzers and artillery rockets.

What Moscow needs most are missiles and Soviet-standard artillery ammunition, neither of which the U.S. left in Afghanistan, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“Most of the weaponry that the United States left is probably inoperable and badly deteriorated for lack of trained maintainers and spare parts,” Cancian told VOA. “This is particularly true of complex weapons like helicopters or tanks, even those that are Soviet standard.”

Moscow might be able to use military helicopters, including the Soviet-designed Mi-17 that the Taliban currently possess, as well as a limited number of American-made Black Hawks and light planes, but the chances are slim.

“Why would they give them up?” said Jonathan Schroden, director of the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington County, Virginia. “They’d be giving up the bulk of their air capacity, and I just don’t see it being in the Taliban interests to do that.”

Schroden said that the rest of the equipment, including Humvees, heavy machine guns and ammunition, are not necessarily compatible with Russian logistics and maintenance capabilities.

“I don’t understand why they would add that to their level of difficulty to what they’re already dealing with,” he said.

Almost a year into its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has turned to other states, including Iran and North Korea, to sustain its military.

Washington has placed sanctions on Tehran for providing Moscow with Iranian-manufactured drones and is attempting to add sanctions on North Korea for supplying battlefield missiles and rockets to the Russian mercenary group Wagner for use in Ukraine.

Tehran has said the drones were sent before Russia’s February invasion, and Moscow has denied its forces used Iranian drones in Ukraine. North Korea and Wagner have also rejected U.S. allegations.

Sayed Aziz Rahman contributed to this report.

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India’s First Nasal COVID-19 Vaccine Launched

This week India launched its first nasal COVID-19 vaccine, four months after it received approval for its restricted emergency use among adults in the country.

The mucosal vaccine, made by India’s leading vaccine maker, Bharat Biotech, is based on technology licensed from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, in the U.S.

It is administered in the form of drops in the nose and stimulates an immune response in the mucous membranes of the tissues lining the nasal cavity, upper airways and lungs.

Originally called BBV154 and now sold by Bharat Biotech as iNCOVACC, the nasal vaccine was launched by Indian Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya on Thursday, Republic Day, a national holiday in the country.

“Proud to launch iNCOVACC, the world’s 1st intranasal vaccine for COVID … A mighty display of India’s research and innovation prowess under PM Narendra Modi Ji’s leadership. Congratulations to Bharat Biotech for this feat!” Mandaviya posted on Twitter.

He called the vaccine a “historic achievement & a testimony to the innovative zeal” of India’s scientists.

In a statement, Bharat Biotech said that iNCOVACC, the “world’s first intranasal COVID vaccine for primary series and heterologous booster” is now available on CoWIN, India’s vaccine portal that digitally tracks people’s vaccination status.

It will cost 800 rupees ($9.80) in private hospitals and 325 rupees ($4) in government hospitals. A heterologous booster is the vaccine dose for people who have already received two doses of Covishield or Covaxin, the two common Indian COVID vaccines.

“iNCOVACC is a cost-effective COVID vaccine which does not require syringes, needles, alcohol wipes, bandage, etc., saving costs related to procurement, distribution, storage, and biomedical waste disposal, that is routinely required for injectable vaccines,” the statement said.

“Amid growing COVID-19 cases and emerging variants of the highly transmissible virus, a booster dose of the vaccine becomes imperative. As [a] needleless vaccination, Bharat Biotech’s iNCOVACC will be the world’s first such booster dose … The nasal delivery system has been designed and developed to be cost-effective in low- and middle-income countries,” the statement added.

Dr. Krishna Ella, chairman of Bharat Biotech, told ANI news agency that iNCOVACC was “easy to deliver” since no syringe is required and that it resulted in a broader immune response as compared with injectable COVID vaccines.

In a Sept. 7 news release, the Washington University School of Medicine said that since the adenoviral nasal vaccine — which is known as iNCOVACC in India — is delivered via the nose, right where the virus enters the body, it has the “potential to block infection and break the cycle of transmission, as well as prevent lung damage.”

“The nasal delivery system was designed and developed to be cost-effective, a feature that is especially important in low- and middle-income countries, and the vaccine can be stored in a refrigerator. Receiving the vaccine requires only a brief inhalation, a major plus to the many people who prefer to avoid needles,” the statement said.

Dr. Michael S. Diamond, a professor of molecular microbiology, pathology & immunology, and a co-inventor of the nasal vaccine technology, was quoted in the news release as saying: “Nasal vaccines induce the type of protective immunity that we think will prevent or limit infection and also curb pandemic transmission of this virus.”

On Friday, Diamond told VOA that “it is exciting” to see the deployment of iNCOVACC in India as a nasally delivered vaccine and booster.

“The continued waves of COVID-19 infection necessitate new strategies to overcome transmission. By generating immunity in the upper respiratory tract at the portal of entry of the virus, this vaccine has the potential to better limit [the] spread of the virus than other approaches,” Diamond said.

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Cameroon’s Media Community Mourn Killing of Radio Journalist

Cameroon journalists are calling for an investigation and say their profession is in danger after a popular radio host investigating government corruption was found dead. Emmanual Jules Ntap has more from Yaounde.

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South Africa Battles Drownings With Survival Pools

A red shipping container lies in a school playground in a small South African town. 

The imposing steel structure has an unexpected function: to help save youngsters in a country gripped by an epidemic of drownings. 

Within it is a swimming pool — the only one within 25 kilometers — where children will learn the basics of how to stay afloat. 

South Africa has thousands of kilometers of beaches, and in rich neighborhoods, swimming pools dot the gardens. 

Yet just one South African in seven knows how to swim, and each year about 1,500 people drown, according to a local rescue institute — an average of four individuals per day. 

In the Cape Town suburb of Riebeek-Kasteel, Meiring primary school, which hosts the container, has suffered its own drowning tragedy. 

A framed photo in the entrance hall pays tribute to a 12-year-old lad who perished in a dammed lake at a nearby farm in 2021. 

“If he just knew how to float in water, he could have saved his own life,” said school principal Brenton Cupido.  

“It gets very hot here, especially in summer, and our (pupils) flock every afternoon, unsupervised, to the nearby dams. But most of them can’t swim.”  

The toll is a “huge public health issue” rooted in historical inequalities, said Jill Fortuin, director of drowning prevention at the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).  

Most fatalities are Black South Africans. 

“Apartheid is a big portion of the problem,” said Fortuin, herself a person of mixed heritage. 

Under segregation, swimming pools and holiday beaches were limited to the white minority, providing little incentive for the majority to learn how to swim. 

Three decades after the advent of democracy, stark inequalities remain, with limited infrastructure and opportunities. 

“Government schools, where most disadvantaged people go to, often do not have swimming pools,” said Fortuin. 

Faced with choosing between putting food on the table or paying for swimming lessons, most families opt for the former, she added.  

“Swimming is not seen as a priority.” 

‘Safe water’

To help tackle drowning, NSRI has deployed 1,350 volunteer lifeguards across the country’s beaches and installed 1,500 bright pink buoys on various water bodies to help rescuers aid people in distress. 

But prevention is paramount, said the group, whose awareness-raising campaign has reached more than 3 million people in recent years. 

With climate change fueling floods and heat waves, the need increases, said Fortuin. 

The “Survival Swimming Centre” pool installed at Meiring is the brainchild of Andrew Ingram, 58, a drowning prevention manager. 

In their homes, some of “the children … don’t even have toilets that flush. So how on earth are they going to have a swimming pool?” he asked.  

“We provide safe water and somebody to teach them.” 

The container pool is 6 meters long and 1 meter deep. 

Children are taught how to help friends in difficulty, control breathing, orient themselves under the water and use an empty bottle as an emergency buoy. 

Half of the school’s children now know how to float — and most of them are the first in their families to learn, said Cupido.  

Jonathan Van der Merwe used to be very “concerned” that his daughter, who was one of the first to take lessons at Meiring’s survival pool, might get into trouble in one of the many ponds around the wine farming area. 

“Now, I’m very calm and relaxed about it,” he said. 

A sister container will soon be installed at a school in KwaZulu-Natal, an eastern province ravaged by deadly floods last year. Another is already in place in Eastern Cape province.  

Petro Meyer, 62, NSRI’s water safety instructor, has introduced about 100 students between 6 to 12 years old to survival swimming.  

“You should see their smiles when they realize they’re floating by themselves for the first time,” she said. “We want to create a new culture in these kids.”  

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