Girl, woman, lover, mother: Towards a new understanding of child prostitution among young Devadasis in rural Karnataka, India
The emotive issue of child prostitution is at the heart of international debates over ‘trafficking’ in women and girls, the “new slave trade”, and how these phenomena are linked with globalization, sex tourism, and expanding transnational economies. However, young sex workers, particularly those in the ‘third world’, are often represented through tropes of victimization, poverty, and “backwards” cultural traditions, constructions that rarely capture the complexity of the girls’ experiences and the role that prostitution plays in their lives. Based on ethnographic fieldwork with girls and young women who are part of the Devadasi (servant/slave of the God) system of sex work in India, this paper introduces an alternative example of child prostitution. Demonstrating the ways in which this practice is socially, economically, and culturally embedded in certain regions of rural south India underlies this new perspective. I argue that this embeddedness works to create, inform, and give meaning to these girls as they grow up in this particular context, not to isolate and produce totally different experiences of family, gender identity, and moral character as popular accounts of child prostitution contend. Data pertaining to socialization, ‘positive’ aspects of being a young sex worker in this context, political economy, HIV/AIDS, and changes in the Devadasi tradition are used to support my position. Taken together, this alternative example presents a more complex understanding of the micro- and macro-forces that impact child prostitution as well as the many factors that affect the girls’ ideas of what they do and who they are as people, not just sex workers.