Hajamma comes from a village in Telangana with over fifty Joginis. She says, “Since my mother had lost her son, she decided I should become a Jogini and look after her in her old age." Her brother had died when he was seven-years-old, and Hajamma was not born until her mother was 40.
“I was all of 11 years when they decided to dedicate me to the goddess," she continues. "I had no idea what it meant. How could I? The older women, Joginis who’d been through this experience which had blighted their lives forever told me to run away. There was lots of advice. But what could I do? Where could an eleven year old girl run to? Where could I hide?”
During Hajamma's dedication, a designated man tied a 'thaali' - a symbol of marriage - around her neck and claimed his right to be the 'bridegroom' that would be the first to deflower the young girl. However, Hajamma's mother wanted to reserve her daughter only for those who would give her gold or money. Hajamma refused to consort with any of them.
“So the ceremony was over. I was like a goddess that day. Dressed in wedding-like finery. Flowers and shiny fake jewellery. I felt like a princess. But the old women cried. There were about 50 of them. Old joginis used and thrown out. No one to give them a meal even. Despised and humiliated.
Mocked and abused
“I went back to school and everyone laughed at me. I used to love school. But now it was horrible. I felt ashamed when they jeered at me. I wanted to crawl into a hole. I stuck it out for three months, then left. I went through the Jogini routine. At 13 years old everyone in the village wanted to sleep with me. At that time I was helpless. I hated it.
“When I tried to work elsewhere, in the fields, or in construction work near Mumbai, sooner or later the story would come out. Other workers would say: ‘Where is your husband? What does he do?’ Before long someone would tell them, ‘She’s a Jogini.’ Then the men would pester me, proposition me. I had no peace. Harassment all day and often at night. ‘It’s your duty to come with me,’ they would insist. ‘After all you are a Jogini.’
Why can't I marry the man I love?
“Finally I met the man I loved. He loved me too. We wanted to get married. But the community was furious. ‘You can’t,’ they said. ‘You are village property. The whole village will be cursed. Everyone will die.’ All I wanted was to marry the father of my two children. But the villagers threatened to beat us up. Kill us."
Despite the opposition, and with the support of a local organisation who gained the help of the police and local officials, Hajamma eventually married. “We got married with our two children in attendance! I cried like anything. So much tension. Such a relief when it was done. But after the officials left, people showered abuse and curses on us.”
Standing up for Joginis
Hajamma’s experience made her determined to help other Joginis. “My wish?” she says, “For them all to come out of the system. For all the children of Joginis to have an education.” Now Hajamma leads our field team stopping dedications, empowering Joginis to leave the system, and supporting them in the difficulties they face.
“As well as being Joginis they are Dalits, and some of them are sex workers. They are suffering like widows. They need supporting, because they are excluded and marginalised. No-one is standing up for them. They are facing problems because they are Joginis, so they need to be brought out of the Jogini system, and integrated into society.”
Hajamma’s team delivers our prevention and awareness programme, as well as managing our economic empowerment programme locally. Help them to make a real difference by donating to our Free A Woman fund. Click on the Donate button now!
Hajamma's story is compiled from testimony given at The Hague Dalit Women's Conference reported in the New Internationalist Magazine Issue 396, supplemented by information from Saris on Scooters by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos and Mary Ellen Iskenderian