At first glance, Navnitha looks like any other 11-year-old Indian girl, but look into her eyes … they are not the eyes of a typical pre-pubescent. Those eyes tell of torment, they fix you in their gaze and beg for understanding. They are silently screaming.
Navnitha may not be a typical 11-year-old but nor is her backstory unique. As someone born into poverty, unfortunate enough to be among the more than 250 million who suffer at the lowest rung of the caste system, Navnitha is a “Dalit”, which translates to “crushed, oppressed or broken”.
Dalits know of only one form of life: discrimination, exploitation, oppression and segregation. Many are trapped in various forms of bonded labour and slavery. And if you happen to be a girl your circumstances are particularly horrific.
Many Dalit girls, some as young as five, are forced into what is known as the Jogini practice – 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. Handed over without their consent, or understanding, these girls are then trapped in ritualised sexual abuse.
The plight of the Joginis is a hidden terror, denied by local authorities and virtually unknown to the global community. The practice was outlawed in 1988, but not eradicated. It is estimated there are 100,000 Joginis spread across 3000 villages in India.
Navnitha’s impoverished, illiterate and superstitious parents had determined at her birth she would one day join become a Jogini. At aged just five she was given to the care of an older Jogini and spent nights witnessing unimaginable horror.
By the time she turned six, she was being prepared her for full initiation. It was at this point that she was brought to the attention of the Good Shepherd Anti-Human Trafficking team and rescued.
Navnitha spent the next few years in sheltered accommodation but the mental anguish remained. She would often wake in the middle of the night screaming, haunted by nightmares of her evenings spent with the older Jogini.
The nightmares have since ceased and Navnitha now feels safe in the care of the house mother and staff. She attends school and one day dreams of becoming a teacher.
Not all Dalits are as lucky as Navnitha and funding is urgently needed to help rescue more vulnerable children. To find out how you can help, visit the Dignity Freedom Network website.