Young virgins worshipped as a powerful Hindu deity in Nepal must be granted basic human rights. That is the ruling of the supreme court of the Himalayan country.  VOA correspondent Steve Herman, in our South Asia bureau in New Delhi, reports on what the ruling will mean for the girls known as Kumaris, revered by many Hindus and Buddhists.  

Child rights activists in Nepal are hailing a supreme court ruling regarding girls worshipped as living goddesses. The judges have decreed that the virgin Kumaris of Nepal should be sent to school and not secluded in medieval palaces.

The girls are chosen when they are three or four years old from a Buddhist caste and maintain their divine state until they reach puberty. They preside over all important religious and cultural ceremonies in the Kathmandu Valley. About a dozen other Kumaris are scattered across Nepal.

The chairman of the Informal Sector Service Center, a human rights group in Kathmandu, Subodh Raj Pyakurel, hails the court ruling. 

"It has given a very good message in our country," Pyakurel said.  "Specifically, keeping into the mind that child rights violations or negligence to the children's rights are time and again conducted in the name of continuum of tradition and in the name of religion, also." 

The social justice activist says the legal decision will protect children by strengthening their rights in a new secular constitution lawmakers are about to draft. 

"Not only on the basis of the Child Act Convention, but also on the basis of the court's decision the new constitution should very clearly mention specifically about the role and responsibility of the state towards providing the children's rights in practice," Pyakurel said.

Nepal is one of Asia's most destitute countries.  It is estimated that more than half of Nepal's children have no access to primary school.  And, nearly half of those between the ages of 10 and 14 work, many without pay or as bonded laborers. 

The situation of the Kumari goddesses is unique.  They are not allowed to live with their families, receive no formal schooling and do not get to play with other children.

Defenders of the tradition argue that the girls are taken care of in regal fashion and serve as a symbol of unity between the majority Hindus and the country's Buddhists.

The supreme court ruling comes three months after Nepal abolished its Hindu monarchy, whose legitimacy was tied to the annual blessing from the Kumari.

A former rebel who led the Maoist insurgency against the monarchy was sworn in as the first prime minister of the Nepal republic, Monday.  The Maoists consider the Kumari an "evil" legacy of the rigid Hindu caste system and incompatible with socialism. 

Defenders of the Kumari tradition say their mandate comes from the heavens and court rulings issued by mere mortals will not apply.

The most prominent current Kumari, 11-year-old Preeti Shakya, is likely to be forced into retirement after an annual festival in October.

A search is on for her successor.  She must have 32 physical perfections, including flawless skin, hair, eyes and teeth.  She also must not be afraid of the dark.  In return for a small stipend for her parents, she supposedly can misbehave without fear of punishment and eat whatever she desires.