Extreme poverty and lack of education put Manemma* at high risk of being exploited and abused. Her family lived on a piece of barren land in rural southern India, where she helped care for her two younger sisters. Her parents could not afford to send her to school, even to a free government 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 ever being able to find enough money to pay a dowry for her and her sisters to get married, so he decided to dedicate Manemma as a Jogini at the age of ten. The family got into debt paying for the ceremony expenses but felt it was a good long term investment as 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 very relieved that she would stay at home to look after him in his old age. He hoped that she would also bear sons who would be his heirs.
Abused and exploited
Shortly after her dedication, though, her father died, and Manemma found herself as head of the family. As such 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 try and 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 their will, but never gave her the promised money. Manemma’s life became even more miserable as now she had the added burden of many men wanting to use her, added to the pressure of backbreaking work in the heat of the fields in order to provide for her family. She was regularly harassed both physically and verbally as she went about her day to day work simply because she was a Dalit (Untouchable) and a Jogini. Even her own cousins beat her mercilessly since they had expected (if she had not become a Jogini) to inherit her father’s meagre land.
Manemma has given 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 both sleep out in the open on the verandah of a government office but 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.
Our Indian colleagues met Manemma in 2012 through their empowerment programmes. They helped her to understand her legal and constitutional rights. They appointed Manemma as their representative in the village to be a link between the Joginis and our field team. She also received a £200 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 has helped other Joginis to get the same.
Manemma heard about our Pratigya children’s shelter and asked if her daughter could be given a place so that she would be well cared for and educated. For the first time, her daughter 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 very active in speaking out against this 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 she has actively participated in awareness programmes. 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 UK supports these prevention and awareness, economic empowerment and community healthcare programmes, as well as the Pratigya Children's Shelter. Help more women like Manemma through our Free A Woman fund fund. To give now, click on the Donate button.