Pushpa* faced years of sexual exploitation and abuse because her family were impoverished and needed a way to survive their poverty. Pushpa lives in rural Telangana, a south Indian state, where her parents made beedis (Indian cigarettes) for a living. Beedis are sometimes described as the poor man’s cigarettes, and are thought to be more dangerous than normal cigarettes. As a result of greater awareness about the health hazards, demand is falling, and those working in the beedi industry are struggling to make a living. Pushpa’s family, already living in extreme poverty, found themselves in desperate straits financially.
The family believed there was a way out, but it would mean Pushpa suffering indignity and worse through exploitation and abuse. It was following in a tradition that they believed would bring them good fortune. It had the bonus that they would never have to pay out a huge dowry had Pushpa married a man.
The family’s solution
At just eleven years of age, Pushpa was dedicated as a Jogini. A Jogini is dedicated to a goddess to perform temple duties, but as soon as they reach puberty they are used by men. In order to cover up the dedication – which was against the law – Pushpa was nominally married to her maternal uncle, even though he already had a wife. This sham marriage hid Pushpa’s ‘marriage to the goddess’ which is at the heart of becoming a Jogini. In return her family received a small sum of money from the uncle, and small payments continued over the next few years.
When things go sour
All this financial help came to an end, when Pushpa’s so-called husband threw her out of his home along with her toddler son. He treated them both very badly, disowning the toddler alleging that he was illegitimate.
Now Pushpa really was the ‘property of the village’. She had to provide sexual favours to any man that approached her, after all, this was her duty. As her son grew older he would ask why their situation was so bad. Pushpa would reply, “Some women are destined to live and die this way!”
A better way out
A few months ago, our Indian colleagues met Pushpa, who is now 25 years old, as part of their prevention and awareness programme. They could see the desperate state that she found herself in. Working with Pushpa they identified a strategy to improve her situation. They helped her through a place on a tailoring skills training course. Now she is able to find work repairing and making clothes. This helps provide a small income so that she does not have to continue to be sexually exploited. They helped her son get a place in a local school. They meet regularly with Pushpa offering their support and advice. Pushpa is very grateful and says that these interventions have saved both her and her son’s life from ruin.
You can help us to help more at-risk women and girls like Pushpa by donating to our prevention, awareness and economic empowerment programmes through our Free A Woman fund. Click on the donate button.