When Vani, 18, became pregnant during her affair with her boyfriend Nooruddin, he offered her a solution: Vani should abort the baby and become a jogini (a woman married to a goddess). Nooruddin promised to continue his relationship with her, if she dedicated her life to the local goddess. Vani went to the temple, hung a mangalsutra (a symbol of marriage) around her neck and declared to her village that she was now a jogini.
She didn't know, however, that all joginis are forced into prostitution. Before she met with this fate, Aashray, one of the two NGOs working with joginis in Andhra Pradesh (AP) since 1993, came to know about her and forced Nooruddin to marry her.
Joginis, alternately known as devdasis, basivis, matammas and venkatasanis in other states of South India, are women 'married off' to a goddess, sometimes when they are barely six years old. Once the girls attain puberty, they are trained to become courtesans, catering to the villagers. The girls undergo an elaborate ceremony at which liquor flows freely and some influential villagers 'initiate' them into the profession.
Traditionally, it is believed that these girls are 'serving' society as 'ordained' by the goddess.
Nirmala Grace, Convenor of the Andhra Pradesh Anti-Jogini System Struggle Committee (APJVVPS), a movement started by Aashray, says, "Often upper caste families influence the farm hands (from lower castes) to dedicate their daughters to them in the name of god. The landlord suggests that one girl can continue serving his family and the local goddess throughout her life and offers Rs 2,000-3,000 (1US$=Rs 44) to the father for this arrangement. Some poor families force their physically challenged girls to become joginis. Some offer their elder daughters. Sometimes, a senior jogini goes into a trance and asks for a particular girl in the village."
"When a girl has copper-coloured hair, which is due to malnutrition, the villagers believe that she is born to be a jogini. In many areas, a sick baby girl is abandoned outside a temple in the night. If she is still alive in the morning, the family believes she is born for the goddess," says Grace.
According to an estimate by Aashray, there are about 27,000 joginis in AP. "What is striking is the self-perception of the joginis. Dedicating a young child is like submitting a tender bud to god. It is the ultimate offering in worship. And when the girl grows up, she rarely mingles with outsiders, so she does not perceive the sex work as prostitution but as service to society," says Grace.
While 95 per cent of the joginis belong to the Scheduled Castes (Mala and Madiga) and Scheduled Tribes, a small percentage belongs to the Backward Castes like Telaga and Chakali. The joginis are concentrated in the districts of Chittoor, Anantapur, Nellore, Prakasham, Warangal, Mahboobnagar and Nizamabad.
"Every Tuesday and Friday, joginis go around the village, carrying a slate in their hands which says that they are joginis and beg for food. During weddings, death ceremonies and religious fairs, joginis are invited to bless the event." Joginis keep a fast when there is a death in a particular family. During a wedding, they walk along with the groom and bride around the pandal.
As an NGO with Christian affiliations, Aashray was worried how its intervention would be received since the jogini system is based on Hindu religious beliefs and superstitions. "We did face resistance a lot of times from the villagers. But I told them: 'I am not preaching Christianity; I am not asking you to pray to Jesus. If anything, I am attending your fairs and functions.' Our approach has always been women's issues. When we asked the women what problems they faced, they automatically talked about the jogini custom," says Grace.
The movement started with one village and has now spread over seven districts. Aashray's goals include end of the jogini tradition, marriage of joginis and development of community-based organizations to create awareness against the custom, and ensuring education for children born to joginis.
One big achievement has been the end of an inhuman 500-year-old custom involving joginis, called the Polepally jatara (fair). "A jogini is made to sit in a cradle hung to a hydraulic crane. As the cradle rotates, she throws flowers, turmeric powder over the crowd below. The cradle rotates so fast that the woman very often fractures her ribs and even dies. We demanded that this practice be stopped. Now they just put a photograph (in the cradle)," says Grace.
During their awareness visits, Aashray members raise several questions among the villagers: What is a trance? How does a benign goddess ask for a girl's life? Why do joginis have to be only from particular castes? Why are these women leading such miserable lives?
"Although the jogini system was abolished in 1988, the district administration does not comprehend the intricacies of the system," says Grace. Aashray is now recommending joginis for rehabilitation programmes, implementing the provisions of the law, helping joginis send their children to school and starting vocational programmes for them.
"The ultimate aim is to integrate them into the mainstream. We tell the government not to grant separate schemes for joginis, just define the women economically and politically as they would define other women. We do not even accept separate colonies for joginis. By 2010, we want to eliminate the word jogini from the area," declares Grace.