Well another early start, but only by mistake! We were told we would began at 9:30am but at 7:30am the phone went and we were told our vehicle was ready so we hopped to it and off we went. The vehicle was a hire vehicle and an unknown driver but we thought well the vehicle is often late so been early was just another surprise. We travelled for about an hour when I thought it was unusual that there was no-one from the diocese with us, and within minutes the drivers phone went and my worst fear came true, we had left Ruben! So u-turn it was back to Chennai to pick up Ruben!
Then once more we were on the road to Nagalapuram Women’s project. It was a long and steamy drive for about three hours. We popped in to Nagary to visit Paul before heading into Nagalapuram for lunch at the local village church and then it was off to a village to visit the Maathamma program. Maathamma is a Hindu Goddess, the community believed that if their girl children got sick and the doctor could not heal them the next step was to dedicate them to the goddess. If they survived the children became temple girls and the property of the public. This meant that they could live with anybody and were used for a certain period, their source of income was dancing and prostitution, this would begin at about the age of 12.
The project has worked to break this cycle, while understanding that this is so sensitive because it is all based on religious belief. We met old women and young women that had been temple prostitutes. This has so far been the most moving time for me, perhaps because I have 2 daughters and cannot for a minute imagine handing them over to become public property. The stigma of being Maathamma stays with these communities, these women for generations. Prostitution, while an issue in India, is very taboo and the women would be harshly condemned. Temple prostitution differs to street prostitution in that only men in the village have the right to use the women. Young lives destroyed in the name of religion and culture is a devastating thing and when you come face to face with the women that this has touched you cannot help but be moved.
This religious practice continues in and around India, mainly in rural villages, women and young girls are suffering abuse and exploitation at such a deep level and because of the sensitive nature of this issue it is not something that can be changed easily. It is not simply a matter of raising the moral issues or the ethical issues surrounding Maathamma’s because it is grounded in the faith and religious beliefs of the people. While for me this is just simply an anathema to what I believe any faith tradition should be, I realize when faith and religion are involved, issues such as this need to be approached carefully and sensitively, intervention or call for change needs to be done respectfully in a way that is enpowering – the change needs to happen through education and from within. While initially my reaction is anger at the fact that young girls and women are exploited in such a cruel way, I soon moved to a place where I realize anger would do nothing to work towards transformation and change – but I struggle to work out how I could ever possibly truly identify and empathize, I can try and I can sit with and I can be present and I can engage but I would never ever know!
The women share their stories, not with a sense of shame but will a sense of self worth and self respect, it seemed that the sharing of the stories was all part of the healing process and for me possibly the most powerful stories I have heard in a face to face situation – this was not a TV dock, these were real women standing in front of me, sitting next to me, holding my arm, that where sharing these stories. The support given by the church has been support that has built the women up and helped to set them free from shame, and prostitution on any level brings with it shame in India. We didn’t stay too long, but long enough to hear the realities of this complex, exploitative and abusive practice.
We prepared to head off for the long journey home. We stopped off on the way at a waterfall and completed our day with the beautiful experience of standing under the falls in our salwar suits, the powerful water which flowed from the mountains through tracks of herbs soaking away the hot and sweaty remnants of the day, it was a great way to finish a heavy day.
The journey home was long and we were all so tired, we arrived home at about 9:30pm for dinner and soon collapsed into bed – tomorrow will be another experience, another day but today will be one that stays with all of us for ever, I have no doubt.