Early February provided an opportunity for DFN UK staff to meet with Jogini activists who are fighting against a system that enslaves Dalit girls in a lifetime of ritual sex slavery. Girls are dedicated as Joginis at a young age, and when they reach puberty they are in effect sold for sex.
Meeting with fifteen community leaders and committee members, who represent some 5,000 Joginis in one district of the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, our staff listened as the women explained how they were banding together to bring an end to the Jogini system. They described how they wanted to raise awareness about the evils of the system both door-to-door in villages and at large religious festivals (Jataras). Every year, fifty Jataras are held in that district alone; this is where many Dalit girls will be secretly dedicated as Joginis. The most recent Jatara in the district drew some 50,000 people to a rural temple over five Tuesdays.
The Jogini system was declared illegal through state law in 1988, but the police and other officials are largely ignorant of the legislation. The women said that if they reported to the police that a dedication was taking place, they were just as likely to have a case filed against them by the police. But this has not put them off making a stand.
Most of the women at the meeting had been dedicated when they were seven years-old. Superstition is a major motivation – it is believed that becoming a Jogini brings good luck to the girl, her family and the local community. Joginis are married to the goddess, so they do not marry a man. In their words, they are married to their home so they will be there to look after their mother as they grow old. Since 90% of Joginis are following in their mother’s or grandmother’s footsteps, there is no husband to look after the household.
Poverty, allied with lack of respect and lack of opportunity, are key factors in the activists’ campaigning. They have five main concerns for Joginis seeking to find a way out of the system: lack of land, education for their children, shelter, pensions and healthcare.
Under the legislation prohibiting the Jogini system, former Joginis are entitled to £400 to have a house built. The amount is far too small, and it does not take into account that they need land in order to build. Neither does it factor in those who facilitate applications for the money taking a hefty slice for themselves. Former Joginis are also entitled to a pension of less than £3 a month, but most are unable to access this, not least because many are unaware of their entitlement and the state government has failed to correctly identify those are entitled.
Only one in ten Jogini children receive an education, and for many of these that is only for a few years before they are forced into child labour to enable the family to survive. The Joginis explained that it was not just education that their children needed, but also the opportunity to earn a living. The government reserves a percentage of public service posts for scheduled castes (Dalits), but with so few Jogini children educated they stood little chance of getting these jobs.
Above all, these women want respect. While they may have been worshipped as the goddess by other Dalits outside the temple, Joginis are not allowed to enter the temple because they too are untouchables. Upper castes give them no respect despite the men using Joginis for sex, but even then Joginis are not allowed into upper caste homes. This lack of respect is inherited by the Jogini’s children, who are humiliated by pupils and teachers at school and by potential employers at interviews because they do not have a father.
When asked what they wanted us to tell British politicians and public, the women replied, “Tell them we are forming a union to fight the Jogini system. We want to train leaders in a hundred villages so we can do many things. Our dream and our goal is for social and political development. Our lives are spoiled already. We do not want our daughters’ lives to be spoiled as well, or anyone from the lower castes. This is why we are uniting and conducting awareness campaigns.”
DFN UK’s ‘Break the Chains’ appeal is helping to fund a 12-month pilot for this prevention and awareness programme, helping these women to organise themselves and to have the resources they need for this campaign. Would you help us to bring freedom, hope and justice to these Dalit girls and women? You can make donations online through our Virgin Money Giving pages, by post to our North/West office, or by text giving (simply text ‘JOGN33’ followed by the amount - £10, £5 or £3 – to 70070).
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