She is wearing a red cotton sari and a red tika, a mark Hindu women wear on their foreheads. She has just finished her morning duty of cleaning the temple and holds her face in the palm of her right hand, waiting for the worshippers to arrive with their offerings so that she can have something to eat.
The woman, Devi Dhami, 56, has spent almost all of her life sweeping, cleaning and worshipping in the temple.
Dhami is a Deuki, a woman who was offered to the temple at a young age in exchange for her family’s protection and good fortune from the gods. Dhami, who requested her first name be changed because of the social stigma attached to her status, says her parents sold her to a rich family to earn money, and the rich family offered her to the temple to receive benefits from the gods.
The Deuki tradition, which was abolished several decades ago, commonly forced women into prostitution as local lore suggested men would be cleansed of their sins after having sex with a Deuki. In the years since the abolition, many younger Deuki women have been rehabilitated thanks to several local programs. Still, for older Deukis, like Dhami, who live without a home or education and only temple offerings to sustain them, little is being done to help them start a new life. As she gets older, Dhami says she worries about her livelihood and wonders who will take care of her in her old age.
Until the 1980s, the Deuki tradition was common in Nepal’s Far Western Region. Rich families would buy young girls from poor families or poor families would leave their daughters at temples as an offering to the gods before they reached puberty and were still considered “pure.” In turn, they prayed to the gods to protect them from natural calamities and epidemics and grant them various wishes, such as winning a court case.
Sunita Nepal, program officer for the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, says that exact government statistics aren’t available on the number of Deukis here. She says this may be because the tradition has been abolished. But Swarojgar Sanstha, a local nongovernmental organization, NGO, estimates that there are still as many as 2,000 Deukis in the region.
The Melauli Devi temple has epitomized this tradition for generations. The parents of Deukis or rich families who offer them do not take care of them after they leave them at the temple. The Deukis therefore rely on the offerings made by worshippers to the gods in the temple.
But these offerings are rarely enough, compelling many Deukis to resort to prostitution. According to a religious superstition, Deukis can’t get married but can have physical relations with anyone who comes to the temple. The superstition says that having sex with Deukis is pure and holy and can cleanse men of their crimes and other sins.
Dhami says she lives alone and has been obligated to accept prostitution in exchange for food and clothes since a young age.
“Sometimes some men would come, force themselves on me and then, after their desires were slaked, would leave behind some money,” Dhami says.
The older Deukis say they were cheated in the name of religion and are now living a life of hardship. They say that even though prostitution was traditionally seen as a sin-cleansing act, that now it keeps them from finding other work even if they are still physically able.
“Who will give us Deukis work?” Dhami asks. “And also we are too old to do most of the work.”
Binod Chand, assistant public consultant for the government in Dashrath Chand, a municipality in the district, says that there has been a big change in the Deukis’ lifestyle in recent years. Chand says that several NGOs are working in the districts to help the Deukis and send their fatherless children to school.
Many Deukis have been rehabilitated thanks to self-employment programs run by NGOs, according to Swarojgar Sanstha. After receiving training in skills in the sewing, stitching, cattle farming, cottage and beauty industries, as well as attending literacy classes, young Deukis say they can earn a living.
One Deuki, Shanti Bhul, who says she is in her 30s and requested her first name be changed because of the social stigma attached to being a Deuki, says that she used to be forced to sustain herself with the little amount given to her by people who visited her for sex. But she says that after participating in a self-employment program offered by Swarojgar Sanstha, she now owns a tailor shop. She says she is now happy that she is living an independent life and no longer has to sell her body.
“Swarojgar Sanstha has given this new life to me,” Bhul says. “Now I am able to stand on my own feet and don’t want to remember my old days. I hope no one is compelled to live that dirty life, and every Deuki should be given support to bring change into her life.”
Nepal, of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, says that the government has also established various skills development centers in the districts that offer programs for women from different social strata – including Deukis.
“Women are exploited in the name of religion and tradition, and the government is actively working to stop such illegal and social evils,” Nepal says.
The 1990 constitution of Nepal deemed human trafficking and exploitation in the name of religion and culture illegal.
“This social evil is no longer prevalent,” Nepal says. “If someone tries to furtively offer a Deuki, then strict punishment will be meted out to the culprits. The ones who were made Deukis are now earning their living, but we have no certain data on the number of older Deukis.”
But some say that it’s not as easy for older Deukis like Dhami to make a new life for themselves as it is for younger Deukis like Bhul.
“The young women have changed their lives for the better by taking advantage of various trainings, but the government has not shown interest in the older women’s betterment,” says Dutta Ram Badu, manager of Swaraj Samajhik Sanstha, an NGO.
Badu says that the government and NGOs must do more to help older Deukis. Some suggest creating houses for older Deukis to live in together and helping them to start small businesses in which they could create items to sell, such as leaf plates and needlework, or prepare for religious rituals.
“Even the various institutions are unable to incorporate old ladies like Dhami into their programs,” Badu says.