by Sally Bruce
Ashamma (not her real name) was studying in Grade Ten when her family forced her to leave school to become a Jogini sex slave. Although she loved school and was a promising student, she was no longer allowed to attend.
Ashamma's family are Dalits, those who fall below the caste system, trapped in discrimination, exploitation and oppression.
Ashamma is the oldest of four girls, and her father had fallen sick and was no longer able to care for the family. People from the village told him that there must be a curse on the family as her mother gave birth to girls instead of boys and the family suffered so many problems.
The solution, said the villagers, was to dedicate Ashamma as a Jogini.
The Jogini practice is a particularly heinous form of abuse that many Dalit girls endure. Little girls are dedicated to the temple goddess in a form of marriage. After they reach puberty they become the property of the village and can be used and abused by any man, anytime.
Dedicated without their consent, or understanding, these girls are trapped in ritualised sexual abuse. The plight of Joginis is a hidden terror, denied by the authorities and unnoticed by the global community.
Ashamma was older than most Jogini girls at the time of her dedication. As Joginis are not paid for their services, she began working for an organisation as a social worker. Her family problems continued and Ashamma did not sleep well as nightmares plagued her. She barely ate and did not take care of herself.
Before long she fell pregnant and gave birth to a little boy. However he became sick soon after birth and, despite seeking help from a witch-doctor, her baby died.
It was at this time of despair that someone gave Ashamma a Bible, and hungry for hope, she avidly read it.
She acknowledges that when she accepted the truth of the Bible that God loved her and that He had made a way for her to be released from her sin and brought into right relationship with Him, she was set free from the nightmares that had tortured her for so long.
Ashamma came into contact with the staff from the Good Shepherd, a Christian ministry serving the poor and vulnerable in India under the banner of the Dignity Freedom Network.
She learnt that dedicating girls as Joginis was illegal, and she was empowered to reject the men who came to see her.
Today Ashamma is a Jogini Village Leader, working with Good Shepherd Ministries to stop the dedications of other vulnerable girls. She says that she doesn't want other girls to go through the horrors that she experienced, and she is now a proud mother of a son who is studying in Grade Three.
Although life is not easy, Ashamma continues to work in her village, preventing dedications and advocating for the end of the Jogini practice, sharing the peace and joy that she has discovered.
The Jogini practice exists in around 3,000 villages, of which Good Shepherd is currently active in 260. They hope to continue to expand, so that at-risk girls are saved from heinous abuse, and women are set free, provided with healing, counselling and economic development initiatives, and discover their God-given worth.
They hosted a campaign around International Women's Day, to support more Jogini Village Workers like Ashamma. Their ultimate goal is to see the eradication of this abuse.•
For more information visit www.dfn.org.au.