Eradicate the Devadasi System

GP Connect & Global Peace Foundation through its Service and Development Initiatives, including community drive development as one of the effective approaches to addressing critical social issues, endeavours to achieve cultural harmony and peace. To achieve the principle of ‘All humankind is ‘One Family Under God’, it becomes essential to address such social evils, which disgrace the nature’s principle of human dignity.

One such social evil, which mars human existence, is the caste system- a rigid system of social stratification and social restriction based on one’s birth community. Dalits, meaning the ‘broken people’, inherit an outcast position in the four-fold social hierarchy, and therefore, considered ‘Untouchables’. They are called the untouchables as they are assigned the menial tasks which the so called dominant caste groups would detest, such as manual scavenging, i.e. clearing of human excreta with bare hands or jobs of sweepers, cobblers, barbers and rag pickers etcetera.

Even within this rigid caste system, Dalit women find themselves further down, subjected to marginalisation and exclusion from a dignified existence. There’s is a saga, penned by many, yet lived only by them. They are victims of gender based violence and caste based discrimination and violence, both. The misogynist strands to the caste system are carefully interwoven.

During a work visit to Bijapur district in Karnataka state of India, I met with a few women who are engaged with our work as community volunteers. Amidst the discussions, work planning and update, something struck me profoundly, increasing my curiosity to know more about those two women in the group, who very courageously disclosed that they were ‘Devadasis’ (similar to courtesan), hailing from the so called outcaste Dalit community. Unfortunately, the language barrier between us curtailed my ability to interact much with them.


Devadasi, as the term implies, means ‘Servants of God’. Though traditionally under the system the devadasis (girls dedicated to deity) were meant to take care of the temple and perform rituals, additionally, perform dances as part of worship, the tradition was misogynist, and caste ridden, as in a big way, Dalit women were dedicated to the temples. With time, and with efforts of social reformers and activists, the practice was outlawed in the whole of India in 1988, on the ground that it supported prostitution. However, the practice is still existent in different parts of the country and in (North) Karnataka, where it was made illegal in law book way back in 1982.

I learned from the women that these devadasis survived on ‘Bhiksha’ (Alms). The priests, in the name of family prosperity, advised these Dalit families to dedicate the girl child to the temple. Once a devadasi, the mainstream society doesn’t much feel appropriate to interact with them. Their life is one of social stigmatisation, loneliness, self exclusion and marginalisation. They are not deemed fit for socially acceptable marriage alliances, and some gave birth to children out of wedlock, thus more number of unwed mothers, susceptible to immoral human trafficking. Amidst this, they came forward to accept to work as community volunteers was a valiant step.

This system, by itself, is a perfect prototype of the casteist and misogynist tradition, where those at the lower rung of the social hierarchy have to pay the price, and to be precise, Dalit girls, whose misfortune is decided at the hands of the dominant caste men or Brahmins (the priests/priestly class).


Examples of caste discrimination exist across the globe including in Nigeria, Senegal, Mauritania, Yemen and Japan, and South Asia with 260 million reportedly affected worldwide (Caste discrimination: A global concern, Human Rights Watch report 2001).The same is reported widely now in the continents of the UK with Indian emigrants increasing in number. Caste-based discrimination is proactively recognised by the United Nations as Discrimination based on Work and Descent.

It is here that organisations like GP Connect & GPF could try to build international movement involving all sectors of society, governments, civil society groups and other likeminded peoples to promote the unity of the human family on every level. Dalit women’s emancipation can follow only after she is respected for being a human, a woman, protected against caste and other dehumanising traditions. GPF holds a potential of holding regional discourses on the same in caste affected countries, to bring about international pressure on the governments of these countries to institute proactive systems and law enforcement mechanisms to uproot the clandestine practise of devadasi, while bringing about changes in the thought processes would certainly take time.

Would like to end with a quote of President Obama on caste in November 2010, while in India, in his address to the Indian parliament:

"No matter who you are or where you come from… every person deserves the same chance to live in security and dignity".

Becky Gitonga"I am an ever optimistic and vibrant development professional, working for human rights of the marginalised sections in India, since 2006. I am based in the country's capital, and my work takes me to far flung regions of India, which gives me an opportunity to unmask the real picture on human rights violations of the poor and vulnerable communities. Besides working and writing for humanitarian causes, I am an ardent faith follower, a lover of God, and my perspectives on humanity are founded on this spiritual aspect of me. I focus my energy, each moment, to introspect and become a better human being. The principle I dwell on is, 'Spread Love and Hope to Humanity' regardless of differences and difficulties!" Lee Macqueen Paul

Rio+20: What can we take from this historic event?

June 2012 and Rio+20 (the UN Conference on Sustainable Development) finally happened.

The many months over the last year were hyped with the rally to get people from around the world to vote for the ‘future we want’. In addition, civil society organizations, the UN, private sector, government and people across the globe engaged in various key issues around “Sustainable Development”, which is the theme of the United Nations Rio+20 conference.

As I reflect on this historic conference that is a meant to ride on the challenge that arose twenty years ago during the Earth summit, my heart goes out to communities around the world that continue to be in dire need of urgent development. And even with the talk about sustainable development, some of the key global challenges remain the same. In the final outcome of the Rio+20 negotiations, eradicating poverty and hunger were cited as the key global challenge that continues to face the world.

What are some of the key overriding issues you may ask?

In the case of Rio+20, the issues here revolved around the question on ‘what must be done to achieve sustainable development?’ Through the months preceding the conference and in the campaign to hear a global voice on the ‘future we want’, the issues revolved around getting key actors – governments, heads of states, public and private sector players, and also financial aid institutions to make firm commitment towards the key issues of sustainable development.


Word wall that was a representation of messages received from around the world on the "future we want" campaign.

And while a key issue at Rio+20 is about fundamental environmental issues as a driving force in sustainable development, many more issues continue to drive initiatives such as Rio+20.  This is well captured by the outcry from lobby groups, civil society organizations, environmental and human rights groups that continued to push for a process that ensured funding priorities were determined in a more equitable, transparent and accountable manner. In addition, there has been the call to ensure that the process did not only support the priorities of a few (mostly the rich nations) but increasingly prioritized challenges faced globally that would be followed by firm commitments not only financially but in ensuring a more inclusive process that took into account the priorities of the larger masses at the very grass roots level especially within communities in developing nations.

Beyond Rio+20; what is our role and what does all this mean?

I believe we must recognize this is a process. We must appreciate that the development arena has greatly evolved and also experienced shifting trends over time. And certainly, a growing digitized globe has greatly benefited this process allowing for more voice, more access to opportunities and most especially has greatly leveled the field.

It is also in the acceptance of the shifting trends; that while ten or fifteen years ago, we would have claimed that developing nations did not have the skills and the capacity; that is no longer the case. The issues now revolve around making the resources accessible in an inclusive and equitable manner.

One of the fundamental issues I always raise with say international organizations coming to work in developing nations; unless it is a ground breaking new idea, it would be more valuable to identify initiatives taking place locally and find ways to scale them up and increase their impact. And even if it is a new and innovative idea, we must accept that how we envision the ideas might not work out in the same way once we are within context. Keeping an open mind and making the effort and commitment to involve the intended beneficiaries would go a long way in making the projects a success.


Heads of States and world leaders at the Rio+20 conference at Rio Janiero, Brazil in June 2012.

The greater call is for all the actors and players to take their part of ownership and responsibility. My take is that governments must take responsibility in enacting policies that provide an enabling environment for sustainable development and especially local community ownership. The private and business sector must take greater responsibility followed by firm commitments towards a triple bottom-line that would integrate social, economic, environment factors or what others have referred to as ‘people, planet, profit’ approach. The civil society organizations beyond the advocacy and the role in implementing development programs, there must be an increased effort towards building greater collaboration across sectors so as to bring to light the key issues and experiences at the local community level. And most significantly, the youth have the challenge to turn around many of the current challenges into opportunities for themselves and for future generations. The young can make the choice to create their own future.

I conclude this article with captions of some of the powerful messages shared at the Rio+20 Conference.

"We need everyone — government ministers and policymakers, business and civil society leaders, and young people — to work together to transform our economies, to place our societies on a more just and equitable footing, and to protect the resources and ecosystems on which our shared future depends." — Ban Ki-Moon

Ban Ki-Moon addressing delegates at the 2012 Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

"We share this one planet; and we must find shared solutions, in partnership. Only by working together can we overcome the economic, social and environmental challenges we face." — Sha Zukang

Sha Zukang, Secretary-General of Rio + 20 Conference speaking at the event.

Severn Suzuki is the 12 year old girl who made history during the 1992 earth summit, where her 6-minute challenged world leaders as she stated “I have no hidden ageda.. I am here fighting for my future”. Ms. Suzuki was at the 2012 conference and delivered a 6-minute speech compiled from the messages received across the globe http://bit.ly/MOUkRb

Becky GitongaBecky Gitonga is a community /international development professional with experience implementing community programs/projects and driving social actions/initiatives within poor and challenged communities both locally in Kenya and internationally. Becky has served in various leadership positions as a researcher and educator, and is a change maker passionate about creative and innovative approaches/solutions that drive social and economic change. Becky is currently a social media strategy consultant with Service For Peace / Global Peace Connect and is the founding director of Miradi Innovations.

Serving as a Partner in Driving Inclusive and Sustainable Development

Service For Peace is an international non-profit organization that has been managing and structuring volunteer service programs since 2002. Having initiated its programs in the United States and Korea, the organization currently has a presence in twenty two countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and USA within communities that are branded ‘Communities Of Peace.’

While the organization begun initiating its programs within these communities focused on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) especially the second goal of achieving universal education, the emphasis over the years has been on driving an inclusive and sustainable community led, community grown and community driven process. The organization therefore then seeks to establish itself as a partner in the process supporting the community to identify issues that affect them, empower and enhance their capacities to initiate relevant solutions and meaningful impact.

In this article, we provide insight into highlight four approaches that have been valuable for the organization in advancing community driven development process.

Establishing a local ongoing initiative / local partner

One of the key objectives in identifying a community to work with, the organization seeks to establish partnerships with local ongoing initiatives within a specific target community. Once partnership is established, the organization commits to invest within these communities for a minimum period of 3-5 years. Partnering with ongoing local initiatives ensures local ownership and is an integral part of sustaining initiatives started.


Service For Peace in 2010 established partnership with Children’s Garden Home and School that rehabilitates rescued and abandoned children. The home is located in a semi-urban community in Dagoretti, Nairobi, Kenya. The home had ongoing initiatives to support the children in form of a home and a school but urgently needed support to enhance and sustain the efforts. Through the established partnership, the organization has initiated a number of programs within this community.

Structured & meaningful volunteer programs

Once the organization through its local national offices has established partnership within a community, the commitment would then be to invest in this community for a minimum of 3-5 years. During this period, the organization implements structured volunteer programs that bring together local and international volunteers to undertake projects within these communities. Through these programs, local volunteers are generated that would continue to support the process. As well, the programs provide an opportunity to bring other local partners that include schools/universities, government institutions and even corporate companies that would become a resource and key partners in supporting ongoing initiatives.


Global PeaceMakers (one of Service For Peace’s International Volunteer Programs) participants undertake the renovation of a model school that also generated partnership with a local university in the Dominican Republic, and also brought together community members and other partners to support the implementation of initiatives started. 

Generating resource within the community

As part of integrating a sustainable community driven development approach, the program values the community and the institutions within it as assets in the process and therefore seeks to generate community leaders, social entrepreneurs and other partners from within these communities that become a key part of the process ensuring that the development is community owned and driven.


Identifying key people within the community to drive the process; In this picture Moses Ndungu (left) and Elaine Hurt (right – the Service For Peace / Global Peace Connect Director in Kenya) in the greenhouse that was initiated at the home and school in the Community Of Peace in Dagoretti Kenya, where the organization has established an ongoing partnership. The greenhouse is part of the effort to drive a sustainable process by supplying part of the food for the home and also generate revenue from the surplus produce sold. Moses has been identified as a social entrepreneur that has been driving the initiatives.

Providing ongoing support and bringing initiatives to the global limelight

It is very well known that many of the great initiatives that happen at the community level often go unnoticed. In most instances, those running these initiatives are focused on keeping them together with barely have the time, the know-how or the understanding of what it means to showcase their impact.  The organization remains the umbrella that provides the avenue to bring these initiatives to the global limelight, showcasing valuable practices, impact within the communities and especially emphasize on successful community driven development (CDD) models. The organization also provides the avenue to connect to the needed resources.

By Becky Gitonga

Community & Students: A Partnership Across Borders

Guatemala“I thought it would be fun, but I couldn’t have been prepared to have my life and perspective forever transformed,” says David Miller, an Indianapolis native studying biology at Xavier University. The Alternative Break movement promotes active citizenship among US university students through direct service, reflection, and education about pressing social issues in and outside of the United States. When Xavier students decided to participate in their second annual Alternative Break program with Service For Peace and Global Peace Connect, they couldn't have expected the depth of the experience together with El Quimal.

El Quimal is a Community of Peace nestled in the mountains of Guatemala. It is a humble but inspiring community that fiercely protects its indigenous Mayan heritage, its customs, the education of its children, and its commitment to community. Months ago when discussions began about the program, community leaders and residents met with Service For Peace and Global Peace Connect representatives. Based on a previous community needs assessment and dialogue among community residents, the community decided on its next priority: the construction of a protective wall surrounding a make-shirt community sports court below the elementary school. The sports court is virtually the only common, central area where everyone can meet — adult, kids, women, men, athletically inclined or not. Perched on a cliff, there were always concerns about the safety of kids playing.

Alternative BreakThis project addressed the need — as expressed and driven by community members in El Quimal — for a safety precaution. For months, Xavier students spent time researching Guatemala and its culture, acquainting itself with El Quimal through representatives from Service For Peace and Global Peace Connect. Finally the volunteers arrived and were welcomed to El Quimal with a celebration and performance organized by the school. What ensued over the next week was not only inspirational but purely magical. Community members and volunteers alike worked side-by-side, taking turns wielding hammers, mixing cement, pouring concrete and laying blocks. Stories were shared; barriers were crossed; and social issues were explored deeply time and again.

The best part?

It’s not the end. Not only is Xavier committed to returning next year to assist in addressing a community-identified need, whether it be related to the same issue or different, but the community is committed to caring for the newly constructed wall. They are excited to use it, to continue to share the legacy of intercultural partnership, or assistance with dignity.

As one volunteer, Marissa Carlson, puts it, “Service For Peace builds relationships, not dependency. Service For Peace has ignited my passion for life.”

The cycle continues as El Quimal prepares for future programs in and around the school and community, and especially to continue to enjoy and grow sustainable partnerships both locally and internationally.

Janna GulleryJanna Gullery is the International Program Director at Service For Peace. Having previously worked for 6 years with SFP in Latin America & the Caribbean, she has witnessed the transformation and strengthening of Communities of Peace throughout the region alongside long-term partnerships. She is an NYC native passionate about all of her communities, both locally and beyond.

In a thousand words; The Global PeaceMakers (GPM) story

“I left plates on the table and everything else including the house”.  These are the words of a community member explaining to the Service For Peace (SFP) team her escape from the flooding that engulfed their community following the building of a sewer.

Global PeaceMakers service projectThe community in this case is La Rapressa in the Dominican Republic. A group of SFP team members together with international volunteer participants had arrived in this community to implement one of SFP’s programs — the Global PeaceMakers (GPM). It was already clear what the task at hand was — to find a solution that would bring to an end the flooding ensuring that the community had their homes safe again.

Twelve days is what it took to make a difference. During this period, the GPM participants together with community members joined together lifting blocks of stone and placing them together to construct what is now a levee along a section of the community. Through this form of focused service that the GPM provides, the community was left feeling safe again that when the rainy season arrived, they would have nothing to fear as they would have their houses safe from the floods.

And well, they say ‘a picture (or a video) is worth a thousand words’. How can we best relay the GPM story other than sharing the experience through this video taken during the construction of the levee in the community of La Rapressa?

Service For Peace has been working in the community of La Rapressa starting in 2006 and has built a model school, in addition to a multi-purpose sports court. And while the organization has largely had a focus on education as the key factor in driving development, thus, the focus on building model schools, the organization also recognizes the need for interventions that enhance the development process. In the same way, a school feeding program serves as an intervention in enhancing the learning goals, the construction of the Levee was an urgent problem that was on the minds of the community residents in La Rapressa and having solved that increased greater trust in having SFP as a partner in development in this community.

We hope this highlight connects you to the GPM experience. We would like to hear your feedback, which you can provide based on (but not limited to) the questions below.

  • What are your thoughts about the Global PeaceMakers Program?
  • Did you ever think that 12 days or 2 weeks of your life could have significant impact for a developing community? And would you consider being part of such a program? If so, what would motivate you to join the program?

To learn more about the Global PeaceMakers program, please visit serviceforpeace.org or write to Janna Gullery at jgullery@serviceforpeace.org.

By Becky Gitonga