Narayanamma's* family was very poor, but somehow they paid for her education so that she had a better start to life than many others in her situation. Narayanamma was in school right through to the 10th grade (Year 11). It was then that her life took a turn for the worse.
The grinding poverty took its toll. Narayanamma’s father was now very old and unable to work and her mother was suffering through mental illness. They needed someone to look after them, but they had no sons at that stage and if Narayanamma married, she would leave them to live with her husband’s family. To make sure that this did not happen they decided to dedicate Narayanamma as a Jogini. So at the age of 15, Narayanamma ‘married’ the goddess.
Narayanamma’s uncle tied the thaali – the symbol of marriage – around her neck at the Jogini Pelli (dedication ceremony), to give the appearance that she was marrying him. It was a cover-up to hide Narayanamma’s illegal dedication. Her uncle was more interested in Narayanamma’s sister, who he duly married.
Narayanamma stopped going to school and instead went about her temple duties. Her role as a Jogini, though, also involved being used sexually by the men of the village. It was a miserable life. She felt exploited, and sorely missed being able to have a real husband.
In such a situation, it is not surprising that Narayanamma would grasp any straw of hope. Among those who used Narayanamma there was one man who made promises to her and made her feel special. But when she fell pregnant he would have nothing more to do with her. ‘You’re a Jogini’, he said, ‘how can I have you to myself’.
After her son was born, Narayanamma became pregnant again through another man who was using her. He too abandoned her.
Any hopes that Narayanamma had for a good life, were by now totally shattered. Her spirit was broken, and she was overwhelmed by self-doubt and fear.
Our Indian colleagues in OMIF had begun working in her village to empower Joginis and help them to free themselves from the exploitation and abuse that they faced each day. She received a 20,000 rupee grant from OMIF which enabled her to set up a small stall selling basic provisions; she also received a government grant. Narayanamma had so much debt that earning enough for a livelihood was going to be hard, but she was able to clear her considerable debts. It meant that she could escape the clutches of her lenders, and avoid being forced into exploitative bonded labour.
Narayanamma still faces challenges, but her mother’s mental health has improved and her two children are able to go to school. All this despite people still wanting to use her. “Some men come to me thinking that I am still a Jogini,” says Narayanamma, “I made a mistake when I became a Jogini, but I don’t want to go on being a Jogini.”
“Men think that no-one will stand up for Joginis and challenge them. One man uses her for one month and another for another month. Men use us to satisfy their desires then they forget us. No wonder we feel worthless. For us, if just one woman is abused, this gives permission for all of us to be abused. If one woman loses respect, we all lose respect.”
This is why Narayanamma now works with OMIF to challenge the practice. “I am very sad when I see girls being made Joginis. I’ve helped stop dedications. In one dedication we stopped, the girl was then able to marry someone who would be a real husband.” Narayanamma also raises awareness about the risks of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and AIDS. She works hard to protect Joginis from disease and ill-health.
Life is not easy for this 24-year-old young women, but her experience as a Jogini and the hope that she is now experiencing drives her on to help others know the same hope.
Dalit Freedom Network supports the prevention and awareness programme which empowers Joginis, such as Narayanamma, to stand up for themselves and to stop more girls from being dedicated. We have also launched a primary healthcare programme. Among other things, our community healthcare workers provide information and advice about preventing sexually transmitted infections including HIV and AIDS, and they also help the women access diagnosis and treatment.
Help support both these programmes by donating to our Free A Woman fund. Click on the Donate button now!