Free a Woman

Free a Woman

Girls from as young as five years old are dedicated to the goddess Yellama. When they reach puberty they become the ‘property of the village’ to be used sexually by any man, anywhere, anytime, trapped in ritualised abuse. Most are illiterate, uneducated and live in extreme poverty, at risk of ill health and abuse.

Forced into the practice in their early teens, sometimes earlier, they can see no way out. Their life is a constant succession of abuse of one kind or another. The Jogini women are the stigmatised of the stigmatised.

Our team in India work to prevent these dedications, and to empower women to leave the Jogini practice.

We help them access justice and government schemes, establish businesses and learn skills so they can earn a livelihood and live with dignity. In addition, we provide primary healthcare and counselling, and a safe place for ‘at-risk’ girls.

We are excited to announce a radical expansion of our work among the Jogini girls: an expansion from working in 100 to 150 villages.

One of the drivers of the expansion is the commitment of partners in Australia and New Zealand who add capacity to the work which includes community health care, medical clinics, schools, a hostel for vulnerable girls and social awareness programmes.

We have a detailed plan to empower 3 million women, girls and young adults in vulnerable situations and to be part of the eradication of this practice within 10 years.

Thank YOU for bringing freedom and hope to these most marginalised women and girls!

Rekha: how constant rejection turned into acceptance

Rekha’s* parents were casual labourers, so work was hard to come by and they had no reliable income. Left to their own devices, Rekha would have no education, but they were able to send her to stay with some of her relatives in the city where she completed seventh grade in school (Yr 7). Even this was not enough to prevent her from being exploited and abused.

Sadly many Indian families still see daughters as a burden, and this was the case for Rekha. She was dedicated as a Jogini before she reached her teens. Joginis are dedicated to a goddess to serve the temple, but once they reach puberty they are expected to give sexual favours to any man who approaches them. To cover this up – Jogini dedications are illegal – Rekha was nominally married, although still only a child, to her cousin on her mother’s side of the family.

Child marriage

Rekha went to live with her ‘husband’ and his family. She was treated not as a daughter-in-law but as a maidservant who was also expected to have sexual relations with their son. It was a miserable existence.

Plagued by nightmares, Rekha was sent back to her own family. Instead of welcoming her back, they were extremely annoyed that she had returned. The family believed they were cursed as they were encumbered with what they saw as only a burden!

Treated like a street dog

Two months later, Rekha was sent back to her ‘husband’ and his family, even though she had been ill-treated there. Rekha was resigned to her fate. After all, she had been conditioned to think that she was destined to live in a state worse than street dogs.

After a few years, life became even more unbearable for Rekha when her ‘husband’ married another woman. Now more than ever her life had no value whatsoever. It was some years later that our Indian colleagues came across Rekha and began working with her. She embarked on one of our tailoring skills training courses, which enabled her to start a small clothing repair business in her village.

Finding acceptance

Things turned around more than she could have imagined. Not only did Rekha benefit from the help that we have been able to offer her, but miraculously her parents have decided to stand with her and help her to have a new life. Now Rekha is able to live with dignity as she has learnt new skills through our programmes. The work she is now doing has also given her standing in the village.

Story courtesy of DFN UK

From outcast to community leader

Extreme poverty and lack of education put Manemma* at high risk of exploitation and abuse. Her family lived in rural southern India, where she helped care for her two younger sisters. Her parents could not afford to send her to school, as they needed the income from her work in the fields. Manemma never had the opportunity to learn to read and write or to understand her rights.

Her father despaired at finding money to pay a dowry for her and her sisters to marry, so he dedicated Manemma as a Jogini at the age of ten. The ceremony expenses resulted in debt for the family, but they assumed they would receive income from her work as a Jogini. Since Manemma was now married to the goddess, and so would not be allowed to marry a husband, her father was relieved that she would stay at home to look after him in his old age.

Abused and exploited

Shortly after her dedication, her father died, and Manemma found herself the head of the family. She was responsible not only for the debts relating to her dedication but also for the marriage and upkeep of her sisters and her mother. To meet these expenses, Manemma worked night and day in the fields, but could never make ends meet. As soon as her periods started at the age of 13, she was considered ready to start giving sexual favours. High caste men abused her at will, but never gave her any money. Manemma’s life became more miserable as now she had the added burden of many men using her, added to the pressure of backbreaking work to provide for her family. She was regularly harassed physically and verbally simply because she was a Dalit (Untouchable) and a Jogini. Her own cousins beat her mercilessly since, had she not become a Jogini, they expected to inherit her father’s meagre land.

Manemma gave birth to three children but, needing to continue working and without medical care, her two sons died at birth – something that was easily preventable. Her daughter is now nine years old.

Manemma and her ageing mother have been thrown out of the family hut by her jealous cousins, and have nowhere to live and no one to care for them. They sleep in the open on a verandah of a government office and every day they are hassled to leave. They have no cooking facilities, water or bathroom, but manage by making a makeshift fire, defecating in the open, and bathing under the village communal well. Needless to say, they are harassed by other villagers. She spends most of her days crying, feeling like the world has abandoned her.

Opportunities

Our Indian colleagues met Manemma through their empowerment programmes. They helped her understand her legal and constitutional rights. They appointed Manemma as their village representative to be a link between the Joginis and our field team. She received a grant from them to purchase a buffalo. Not only does this provide her family with an income from milk sales, but it also gives her dignity. She was also helped in getting the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme Job Card, which entitles her to 100 days field work guaranteed per year and she has helped other Joginis to get the same.

Manemma heard about our children’s shelter and asked if her daughter could be given a place so that she would be well cared for and educated. Her daughter now has the opportunity of an alternative to being dedicated as a Jogini like her mother. Slowly, Manemma was able to find the strength to leave the Jogini system with the support of our Indian colleagues.

Empowered to make a difference

Manemma is active in speaking out against the practice. She has stopped the dedication of one young girl, and supported many other Joginis in their struggle against the system. She has also been active in addressing social problems in the village such as starvation due to drought and famine and has actively participated in awareness programs. Manemma is passionate about healthcare since she lost her own two children unnecessarily and was involved with appointing a Community Health Worker in her village who is already making a big difference.

Dalit Freedom Network Australia and New Zealand supports these prevention and awareness, economic empowerment and community healthcare programmes, as well as the Children’s Shelter. We invite you to help more women like Manemma and her daughter through our Free a Woman appeal.

* In order to protect the individual we have changed her name and used a representative image.