Mahila Abhivrudhi Mattu Samrakshana Samsthe
(MASS, an membership organisation of former devdasi women of Belgaum District, Karnataka)

Organizational Profile: Mahila Abhivruddi Mattu Samrakshana Samsthe (MASS) is based in the Belgaum district of the southern Indian state of Karnataka. MASS mainly works with dalit women with a focus on ex-Devadasi women and their children. It is a membership association of ex-devadasi women and was registered as a society in September 1997 under the Karnataka Societies Act of 1960. MASS evolved as part of the withdrawal strategy of the Devadasi rehabilitation projects of Karnataka State Women Development Corporation (KSWDC) and MYRADA with funding support from Oxfam NOVIB. ‘Devadasi’ is an old tradition1 in some parts of India, wherein a young dalit girl is dedicated to a local deity/goddess and is expected to lead a life in service of the goddess. However, over the centuries these women have been prone to exploitation and discrimination by the society and in some cases, forced into prostitution.

Though dedication of devadasis is banned by law since 1982 in Karnataka, the tradition has continued to remain alive in the region because of socio-economic factors on the side of those who dedicate and a lack of enforcement of the law from the side of the Government. However, the Karnataka Government (through Women’s Development Corporation) has been concerned for long about the need to support devadasis with economic inputs to improve their living conditions. As a result, during 1989-90, a special programme was launched by the Karnataka State Women’s Development Corporation to train devadasis in skills and support them with generously subsidised loans to take up income generating programmes. The assistance of an NGO – Myrada – was requested to help implement this programme. With the involvement of Myrada the focus of the programme expanded to implement not just the economic aspect but also a concerted effort to prevent more girls from being dedicated, and to organise the women already dedicated into an institutional framework that could protect their interests and build their self-esteem. In the beginning, self help groups seemed to be a feasible option. Over time, it was seen that self help groups would only serve a limited purpose and an institution more substantial and visible would be necessary. After many months of meetings and discussions with the devadasis in around 509 villages of the district, MASS was registered in 1997, not as a federation of devadasi women’s self help groups but as a membership organisation to which any woman of Belgaum district dedicated as a devadasi could join in her individual capacity.

Current membership of MASS is 3628 ex-devadasi women. Its primary constituency was and continues to be the devadasis of Belgaum district. There are pressures from devadasis of other neighbouring districts that they should be allowed to enrol as members as well, but so far this has not been considered as it might make the organisation too big and unmanageable. Besides, in Belgaum the organisation was formed through a long and participatory process, and it is necessary for women in other districts to go through a similar process rather than join a readymade organisation, since the process is what has been empowering to the women of Belgaum. Hence, MASS has been readily sharing its processes of formation with people and institutions of other districts also.

MASS is now a well-known organisation in the region not only for devadasi issues but also for its other services. The vision of MASS does encompass dalit communities, other vulnerable women and children as well. Livelihood promotion for ex-devadasis and dalits, services for ensuring quality education to dalit children, campaign against child marriage and legal support for women victims of injustice, are examples of how the work of MASS is not limited to devadasi women and the tradition.