Saving women from becoming joginis was not an easy task for Grace Nirmala
In the darkened lives of Anjali, Thirupathamma, and many other girls, Grace Nirmala came as a ray of light.
Grace has been rescuing teenage girls destined to become joginis in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh, and taking them under the wings of ‘Aashray’, a voluntary organization founded by her in 1993.
Grace has rescued several children from the jogini custom
Joginis, Basvis, or Mathamma, are different names given to the women ‘dedicated’ to Gods and Goddesses in different parts of Andhra Pradesh. Young illiterate dalit girls are pushed into this custom, only to be exploited sexually by upper caste and influential men in their villages. Once they turn old, they are dumped and left to beg.
Though the centuries-old practice has been banned by specific laws of the nation, not much has been done to put an end to it completely.
Grace, who was a homemaker and part-time educator in the 1990s, learned about the condition of joginis through her husband, Neelaiah, who had done a research on the economic conditions of joginis in Nizamabad district.
She immediately felt the need to do something for their emancipation. “I started my work in Utkoor village and found that their belief in God and superstition was very strong. So I decided to first start a residential school for the joginis,” says Grace.
With the support of her husband, she shifted to Mahaboobnagar district where she brought up her two children along with dalit children. “I treated all of them like my own children. In the process of imparting education to them I counselled and discouraged the dalits from becoming joginis,” she says.
Initially, she found it tough to strike a chord, as neither the joginis nor their parents took her seriously. Breaking an age old tradition, however demeaning and superstitious it might be, was an uphill task.
“There is a Jogii Abolition Act of 1988, but it was not being implemented. The problem is with the lawmakers and implementers,” says Grace’s husband, Neelaiah, who runs an organization that works for Dalit rights.
He laments that he had seen joginis being physically abused for meagre amount of money, sometime as measly as one rupee. He finds it deplorable that even after decades of campaigning against the system the practice still prevailed due to lack of will by authorities to curb this medieval practice.
Grace spreads awareness among the dalits on their rights
But Grace was perseverant. She met a jogini, Hajjamma, at a workshop imparting skills to dalit women in Mahabubnagar. She also came in contact with joginis like Lakshamma, Devendramma, Papamma, Kishtimma, and formed a core group of joginis, who came forward to prevent more girls from becoming joginis and suffer the humiliation they underwent.
This women based initiative is now active in nine districts of Andhra Pradesh. It enabled all the oppressed women to come under one umbrella and raise their voice for their rights and entitlements. The women also do advocacy and lobby with the government and other organizations.
But even way back in 1995, Grace was able to do the unthinkable by campaigning hard for Hajamma’s marriage. Working in the face of threats and stiff opposition, it took her three years to get her married.
Till date, she has conducted fifteen marriages of former joginis. She has rescued several children from the jogini custom and is giving them good education.
Aashray is also working on a series of awareness and orientation programmes on HIV/AIDS among its members, and publishes a quarterly magazine ‘Dalitha’ that carries success stories of dalit women.