At Visthar, the ants march in lines and the monsoon rains only fall at night, well after we have been tucked safely into our dorm. As I walk to the market, men stare as though I have eight arms and children shyly wave and beam when I wave back. Cows stand lazily in the middle of the street and cars, rickshaws, and motorcycles communicate with their horns. I love taking in all the people, colors, sounds, and smells of every place we visit.
I have found my time in Bangalore to be the most off-putting, though each time I go into the city I find myself getting the hang of a different aspect of navigating and existing in India. How to cross the street, for example. I watched the locals a few times and noticed that they often stretch their arms out at a 45 degree angle and then just walk across the street. Confidence is key when mastering the technique. I’ve put it into practice and have seen a drastic improvement in the distance between myself and the yielding car coming towards me. And then there are the things I still find myself cringing at, like the small children that follow me for blocks tapping their cupped hands lightly against my arm, begging. Or the men (and women) who blatantly aim their cell phones towards my face and snap pictures to share with their friends.
A mere two weeks have passed since we arrived, in a bit of a daze and jet-lagged, on the Visthar campus, though I feel like I have been here for years. It’s difficult to put into words how lovely the staff and residents are here. They are truly unlike anyone I have ever known, always going out of their way to ensure that we all have above and beyond what we need. I have settled in quickly, and returning to Visthar after a day out in the city or a few hours in town feels like coming home. Because of this, it is bittersweet to say goodbye to campus for a few days as we head to Koppal on our first of many field visits.
I may be most excited for this week because of the Bandhavi school which has recently transferred its girls from the campus here in Bangalore to the one in Koppal, a 10-11 hour train ride away. I want to spend some time telling you about the Bandhavi school so the next blogger (who will have had some time with the girls) won’t have to waste time on background information and can just jump right in with stories.
To understand the school, you first have to understand the Devadasi System. Years ago, it was the practice of dedicating girls to temples once they reached puberty, or they were promised to the temple as babies. The idea was that they would be responsible for caring for the temple and the gods and the girls often lived in the temple. Back then, it was very prestigious and girls from all castes would be dedicated. Eventually, however, landlords began to use the girls sexually and dominant castes began to pull their girls out of the temples and refusing to dedicate. These days, only dalit girls (a low-dominant caste) are dedicated. Being a Devadasi isn’t hereditary, though daughters of Devadasi women are at a high risk of becoming Devadasis themselves, or being trafficked for sex.
At first, it is hard to understand why families would still dedicate their daughters to a system where sexual assault appears inevitable. However, we must look at the “perspective of the other” to understand why parents might choose this fate for their daughters, who have no agency in the decision. If a girl is born very sickly and is unhealthy, parents might pray to the gods to save her in exchange for a promise to dedicate the girl once she reaches puberty. Another situation that is seen is in a family that has only daughters. In India, when a girl marries she moves in with her husband’s family, leaving her own parents without anyone to care for them. So in a family without any sons, daughters leaving the home means that they will not be cared for in old age. So, parents might dedicate the youngest girl to ensure that they have someone in the house (dedicated women don’t get married, nor do they live in temples anymore).
Although the Devadasi system was made illegal in 1982, largely as a result of missionaries and western NGOs, it is still practiced in small numbers in some parts of India. Interestingly, the missionaries and NGOs used a method of shaming to push the government to criminalize the system (it should be noted that the parents and priests who perform the dedications are who are punished, not the Devadasi girls and women). This tactic of degradation of the women and children resulted in a very negative stigma for the Devadasis and their children. Visthar started the Bandhavi program about seven (?) years ago, with about 15 girls in their care, and has grown since to 110 children at the Koppal campus. The purpose of Bandhavi is to run a good school that prepares the children for mainstream schooling. Because many of the girls have experienced extreme trauma/or have learning disabilities, it is very difficult for them to excel in the current Indian school system. Therefore, Bandhavi serves as a touchstone for the girls who may not have had access to school. The incredible thing about Visthar’s work with the school is that the mothers must enroll their children in the program, and as Devadasi women see the amazing successes of Bandhavi, they are more eager to enroll than when Visthar first started the program. Visthar views the Devadasi system as an infringement on children’s rights, at they cannot make an informed decision about the dedication, therefore have little autonomy over their own bodies (versus grown women who choose to dedicate themselves).
When the Bandhavi school was here at the Bangalore campus, the girls saw their families once a year because they were at least ten hours away from their homes. They are also often from very rural areas, making the urban setting of Visthar harder to adapt to. Because of these factors (and others) Visthar decided to move the school to its campus in Koppal, where they are much closer to their mothers. Now the girls live, learn, and play in an environment that is supportive, loving, and more connected to their homes. My excitement to meet these lovely girls exceeds my excitement for almost anything else. As a group, we pooled together what seems like at least a hundred books, puzzles, flashcards, and block sets to take to the girls to start building their library and English vocabulary. I know they will grow into incredible young women, and can’t wait to spend five days basking in their light.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more updates and details.