Dedicated as a devadasi at 7, Sitavva Joddati fought tradition and circumstance to become the CEO of MASS. Today, she helps other women and children fight for their rights
As the Bhakti Movement spread through South India in the early 7th century, saints, accompanied by bands of ‘mad-devotees’ travelled from one shrine to another, exchanging their sacred hymns for payment. Song and dance soon became important elements of worship. Eventually, temples began to use female slaves to chant and enact the hymns left behind by the saints. These female slaves were the predecessors of the modern day devadasis.
Sitavva Jodatti was one of nine daughters in a family with no sons. Three of her sisters died very young and her parents were told that making at least one daughter a devadasi would ensure that the goddess Yellamma answered their prayers. Though her father was unwilling at the beginning, he was eventually persuaded.
“I was dedicated as a devadasi when I was 7 years old. I was in Class 1, and in my new clothes and green bangles. Everyone was fussing about me and I was happy to be the centre of attention. The priest tied a string of red and white beads around my neck. I had no idea what was really going on. It was not until I was in Class 7 that I was given to a man,” says Sitavva.
When Sitavva’s father fell sick and was unable to work, the family lost their only source of income. Faced with the prospect of abject poverty, Sitavva’s mother pushed her daughter to the second pattam of the devadasi ritual.
“For nine days, I was scrubbed with turmeric and bathed in neem water. I was given my first saree. A thread was tied around me. Offerings were made and grains were thrown over my head. The priest chanted hymns and told me my duties. On the 9th day, there was a feast for all the community members. Though I pleaded with my mother that I would work in fields and support the family, she eventually took money from a man and sent me to him,” she adds.
Sitavva stayed with him for the next couple of years and bore 2 of his children. He was regular in making payments to her family and giving them rations.
But her mother was determined to find a man who could pay them more.
Sitavva was eventually given to a wealthier landlord from Jodatti. He continues to be her joolwa husband.
“Since he came into my life, I have everything I need. He gives my mother grains and ration. He makes sure I always have food to eat and clothes to wear. I had a daughter from him and he loves her wholeheartedly. He lives with his two wives and their family in the village. He visits me often in the holakeri, but tradition doesn’t allow him to marry me,” she says.
The Karnataka Government banned the devadasi system by implementing the Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act in 1987. In the early 1990’s, the former devadasis were forming self-help groups (SHG) and Sitavva started attending their meetings.
“I participated in training programmes, in the regular discussions in the weekly meetings and the awareness programmes. This phase made me think and feel like an individual, rather than a poor Dalit or oppressed woman. I was able to question the injustice that was meted out to me and my peers.”
Sitavva volunteered in the devadasi rehabilitation programmes by KSWDC (Karnataka State Women Development Corporation). When the KSWDC withdrew from the Belagavi district in late 1990’s, the faint idea of an organisation by and for devadasis started taking shape. Sitavva became actively involved in the process of building MASS (Mahila Abhivrudhi Mattu Samrakshana Samasthe) and was selected as a director in the board.
Sitavva went on to become the member-secretary of MASS in 2000.
Sitavva Addressing devadasis during the 15th Annual Day of MASS
Over the years, she participated in several training programmes on women and child rights, child psychology, sexually transmitted diseases, accountancy and financial management, judicial processes and NGO management.
Sitavva became a promoter for MASS in Hukkeri, Chikkodi and Raibag talukas and started different awareness campaigns and training programmes for SHGs. She helped many of them get credit from banks and other micro-lenders. She also started a legal-aid branch of MASS to address legal issues faced by women and children, free of cost. In 2012, Sitavva was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of MASS by the board of directors. Apart from her administrative responsibilities, she continues to be actively involved in the Legal Support Programme and the Microcredit Programme of MASS. Being the CEO is not just another job for her. It is very close to her heart and provides her with a sense of security and pride.
“Being able to help other women who have suffered the same plight as I have, gives me a reason and energy to get out of my bed everyday,” she said.
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