Hyderabad: Just last month, the district administration in Nizamabad, Telangana, rescued a 25-year-old woman from being converted into a ‘jogini’, or the victim of an illegal practice that pushes women into sex slavery under the veil of faith.
The woman is a member of the Madiga community, which is classified as a Scheduled Caste (SC) in Telangana. She belongs to a poor family and her mother, who also has a son with disabilities, wanted to sacrifice her as a jogini to ensure she provided for them with whatever she got from her “patrons”.
Following her rescue, the authorities refused to hand over the woman to her mother until the latter agreed to not push her into this practice. After counselling, the woman married a man from the same community.
Jogini is a centuries-old practice where girls as young as 12 years old — mostly from the marginalised Dalit-Bahujan communities — are married off to the local village deity as part of a religious belief. The families, most of them extremely poor, believe the ritual will please the gods, who will then improve their lives.
In the early days, the primary duty of a jogini — also known as ‘devadasi’ and considered property of the temple — would be to indulge in cultural activities related to the shrine. In the following centuries, it morphed into something completely different, and the joginis were obligated to cater to the sexual needs of temple patrons, village heads etc. The ensuing form saw the women forced to cater to every man in their village.
The practice was banned in 1988 by the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government, which said this about the practice: “However pure in its origin, (the practice) leads many of the women so dedicated to degradation and to evils like prostitution.”
However, 32 years later, say activists, this system is very much alive in many pockets of Telangana. According to Operation Mercy India (OMI), an NGO working to abolish the jogini system in the state, it encounters at least 15 such cases every year. They suspect the number could be higher in the state’s interiors and the cases are probably not reported.
OMI Director Beryl D’Souza said that, scared of penalty, families often turn their daughters over to the ritual without invoking its name. In 2019, she told ThePrint, the organisation rescued a few pregnant teenagers who were “silent victims of this practice”.
So many challenges
The women forced into the practice face many challenges — there is the stigma, the abuse men often heap on them, and the harassment their children are subjected to, say women associated with the ritual.
“Our lives are ruined. Men verbally/physically abuse us all the time and, when we have children, they get bullied at school and in neighbourhoods — other children keep asking them, who were you born to? How many men did your mother sleep with?” said a 27-year-old jogini from Narayanpet.
“When we retaliate against the men abusing us, they do it even more, call us all sorts of names that I cannot tell you,” she added.
A former jogini said people “do not come forward to hire us because society looks down on us”.
“We’re stopped from staying in certain colonies/areas because the locals say that a lot of men visit us and that’s bad, Men of all age groups call us names and say our whole life is about taking care of their sexual needs. Despite all this, they want us to stay as joginis in the village,” she added.
There are other challenges too, primarily the increased risk of contracting HIV during unsafe sexual activity.
According to D’Souza, due to the constant sexual abuse, joginis are three times more prone to getting HIV than other women, and 10 times more likely to die from it.
“More than 80 per cent of them suffer from depression and become alcoholics from a very young age, unable to bear the torture,” she said. “In a few cases, young girls are made to consume alcohol so that they can give in to the sexual needs of men.”
An evil with different names
Speaking to ThePrint, former joginis said the ritual is still prevalent in districts such as Mahabubnagar, Narayanpet, Nizamabad, Medak, and Gadwal, and areas along the Telangana-Karnataka border.
They court different names in different places — joginis in Mahabubnagar, Adilabad, Medak, Warangal and Nizamabad, ‘mathamma’ in Rangareddy, and ‘amababai jogini’ in Karimnagar.
The garb of a jogini usually comprises a traditional saree, with some jewellery. Apart from sexual slavery, they perform at ceremonies organised by local upper-caste families for weddings and festivals, including the state’s traditional ‘Bonalu’.
In some cases, families/villages give away their daughters to this ritual due to beliefs that it will be auspicious to the village, besides keeping epidemics away and securing good health for them. In other instances, the families see this as a way out of poverty, caste discrimination, and retaliation from villagers for resisting it, say activists.
Speaking to ThePrint, a 28-year-old from Narayanpet said she became a jogini at 12. She said it all happened within an hour of her parents finding out that she liked a man and was pregnant with his child. Fearing that her marriage with him would leave them to fend for themselves, they got her married to the village deity, so she would live with them and earn income for the family, she added.
“A lot of men used to come to my place — talk to my parents, promise them food, rations, medical care etc. In return, I was used by them. It continued for many years… I have two children now and I still could not refuse their advances,” she said. “Once, a few random men tore my clothes on the road because I refused their advances… I stopped stepping out of my house due to the fear of being attacked.”
She was rescued by OMI three years ago and provided an alternative employment.
“Once you become a jogini — you become village property. Any man can approach the jogini for a sexual favour and the woman cannot refuse. If they do refuse, they’re attacked, insulted,” said Hajjamma, an activist who was a jogini earlier.
“When I wanted to marry a man I liked, the entire village came to attack me, saying if a jogini marries anyone other than God, it is inauspicious. This is how the practice has evolved. It traces its roots to 1350 at least,” she added.
The OMI is working across 250 villages, covering five districts in the state. Each village has a leader, mostly a jogini, fighting to protect the local girls. In a few villages, the organisation had to put up leaders secretly to avoid any pushback from residents and in the interest of rescue efforts.
In 2010, a one-man commission formed by the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government estimated that there were around 80,000 joginis in the then united state. Around 50,000 of them were believed to be in areas that now constitute Telangana.
As part of its report, the commission offered recommendations on rehabilitating these women, including free medical aid, two acres of fertile land, a separate fund, and a committee dedicated to their welfare.
Ten years later, hardly any of these suggestions have been implemented, say the activists.
For decades, the joginis in Telangana have been demanding a separate budget for themselves from the government, apart from representation in local government, and a separate commission to address their concerns. It was after years of struggle, the activists say, that joginis were accorded state pension of Rs 2,000 in the ‘single women category’ by the previous government.
“It was after a lot of struggle and protest that the previous government agreed to give us pension. We’re married to local gods — they won’t die and we cannot become widows, so we did not qualify for pension. Can we write god’s name as our husband in our documents?” Hajjamma said.
Added Grace Nirmala, an activist who has worked with joginis for the past 25 years: “All we want is that jogini women should get into mainstream lives. They’re shunned and ostracised — we want them to have a life like any other woman. They should be able to work, given dignity, avail all benefits from the state government etc. This is possible when the government forms a separate commission and addresses the concerns.”
ThePrint reached the office of Telangana Women and Child Welfare Minister Satyavathi Rathod by text with queries for this report, but was yet to receive a response by the time of publishing.
Two years ago, the Telangana government was reportedly considering adding joginis as beneficiaries of a housing scheme that would have assured them a 2-BHK accommodation. But the offer has yet to materialise.
“There is no government order on that yet, but we’ve asked the local collectors to start including them in the list of beneficiaries,” Telangana SC/ST Commission Chairman Errolla Srinivas told ThePrint.
A month ago, the commission also asked district collectors to send reports on the status of joginis and the practice in their jurisdiction, but the reports are yet to be received, said Srinivas.
“As far as we know, there are hardly any cases being reported these days. I don’t think the practice is still continuing… There is awareness among people,” Srinivas added.
However, D’Souza of OMI said the number of joginis in Telangana right now may be as high as 70,000.
Activists say poor enforcement of the law is one of the main reasons the system is still practised. In the first 20 years of the ban, the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh Police “hardly registered 25 such cases”, according to the OMI.
Speaking to ThePrint, many activists recalled incidents where the entire village allegedly tried to attack them for trying to stop someone from being pushed into this practice.
“There are a few areas in Telangana where local police have been extremely helpful to us in fighting this system. In Mahbubnagar and Narayanpet, we’re receiving a lot of help from the district administration, but a lot more needs to be done,” Beryl D’Souza said.
Andhra Pradesh, Nirmala said, has done fairly better in dealing with the crisis. Two years ago, she added, a survey was submitted to the Andhra government, highlighting the plight of 10,000 joginis in the state. The government immediately took note and is working on chalking out specialised schemes for joginis in Andhra, said Nirmala.