Helping at-risk girls in India find hope and dignity

In parts of India, the practice of Jogini - a form of ritualised sexual slavery - can lead to untold and lifelong suffering for women. Dignity Freedom Network Australia, through its partner Good Shepherd Ministries, provides education, health care and economic empowerment to help break the cycle of poverty and abuse. Here, its staff share how they are doing this, and invite others to partner with them.

October 7 2019Manimalla* grew up in a large family in rural India. Her parents, who are Dalits, are poor manual labourers, working on a rice farm. Her brothers dropped out of school to help the family eke out a living. Her two older sisters dropped out of school to be married. The family continued to struggle.

For over 3,000 years, the more than 250 million Dalit people of India who fall below the caste system have been deemed “untouchable”. The word “Dalit” means “crushed, oppressed or broken”. They took this name upon themselves as it epitomises their reality.

Despite gaining equal status under the law 60 years ago, little has changed in their daily lives and they face widespread discrimination, exploitation, oppression and segregation in health care, education, vocations and housing. Many are trapped in various forms of bonded labour or slavery. Low literacy and poverty are common.

Girls across India are deemed to be of less value than boys, to the extent that female infanticide – although illegal – is still widely practised. Officials in one northern state are investigating sex-selective abortions after, according to media reports, no girls were born in 132 villages in three months.

Dignity Freedom Network (DFN) partners with Good Shepherd Ministries India to see Dalit people realise their inherent value and potential.

When Manimalla (pictured right) was 14, her parents told her that they could not afford to keep her, and planned to dedicate her as a Jogini, just like her grandmother and aunt, in an attempt to alleviate the dire economic pressures the family was facing.

The Jogini practice involves girls as young as five or six being dedicated to the temple goddess, and trapped in a life of unimaginable ritualised abuse. They are dedicated and initiated without their consent, usually with no knowledge of what becoming a Jogini will involve. After reaching puberty a girl becomes the property of the village and can be used by any man, anywhere, anytime; trapped in a life of systemic sexual abuse.

It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 Joginis. Sexually transmitted diseases and ill-health are rife and mental health issues are rampant. They are stigmatised and abused physically, sexually, emotionally and financially. Most are illiterate, struggle with substance abuse and live in extreme poverty.

Good Shepherd Ministries staff empower Joginis to leave this heinous system, providing them with health care and counselling. Former Joginis become advocates in their village and work to prevent further dedications.

In Manimalla’s case, one of our team intervened and convinced her mother to place her in our safe home. When Manimalla moved to our shelter she spoke only her local language, but she quickly connected with the other at-risk girls who lived there. She attended a local Good Shepherd school, receiving an English medium education.

Today, Manimalla is a self-assured young lady of 22 who knows she was created with value and purpose. She graduated from high school and went to teacher’s college. Today this precious woman teaches English and Environmental Studies in one of our Good Shepherd Schools. Manimalla’s ambition, however, is to work towards ending the heinous Jogini system, so other girls will never have the fear of dedication, and so that women like her grandmother and aunt do not suffer daily abuse and exploitation.

DFN partners with Good Shepherd Ministries to help Dalit people, particularly Jogini women, to discover their fundamental rights by providing education, health care and economic empowerment. We provide avenues through which people can make a difference through prayer, sponsorships, donations and various other means.

The goal of our Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) is to prevent the dedication of little girls, and to empower women to leave the practice. A survey on the ground identified that the practice exists in approximately 3,000 villages.

Currently, our teams work in 250 villages. Joginis who have left the practice become our eyes and ears on the ground, connecting practicing Joginis with our team who provide health care, counselling, vocational training and support. Community Health Workers support these village leaders, while team coordinators and managers work in the area of advocacy, and provide an additional layer of protection for these women.

Our holistic approach identifies vulnerable girls like Manimalla, and works to prevent their dedication. Our Shelter Home provides a safe environment to grow up, where these at-risk girls receive education, and experience a loving and nurturing home.

Through education and lobbying, we are seeing far fewer dedications occuring in the villages where we have a presence. Additionally, practicing Joginis are empowered to escape, empowered to make new choices for their future, their dignity restored. The reach of the project increased by 25 per cent in the year 2018-19 as we expanded from 200 to 250 villages. These villages are home to 876,131 people.

The cost of running the project is $1,600 per village inclusive of Jogini Village Leaders, Community Health Workers, Mandal Co-ordinators and a Field Manager. Our goal is to expand to 300 villages by the end of the year.

The fabulous Upstream Challenge takes place on 9 November, where people register to walk either 20km or 50km. Those who select DFN as a recipient will help raise funds for village expansion. Each increment of $1,600 enables us to work in a village for a year. We invite people to register to join us for this family friendly walk, or sponsor one of our terrific participants.

Our ultimate goal is to see Dalit people, especially women and children, achieve fundamental dignity and hope through quality education, health care, and vocational training, undergirded by a renewed hope for the future. 

To find out more about how you can get involved, email info@dfn.org.au or visit www.dfn.org.au 

*name changed to protect identity