By Anjum Choudhry Nayyar
We as South Asians have long struggled with the cultural notion that girls are a burden and boys are celebrated.
One woman has truly lived to tell this story. Sarita Skagnes is an author, lecturer and social activist. But her journey hasn’t been easy. She was born in a little village in north India into a family that already had two daughters.
Sarita says, as a child and into her early teens, she was abused physically, mentally and verbally and that her father even tried to kill her, and then he exchanged her for a boy. In her mid-teens she moved to Scandinavia and her story reveals the process of enlightenment that she found as she journeyed through two cultures.
In her new home country, she became aware of her own rights and opportunities and finally developed into a strong activist and a defender of the rights of other oppressed women and children. While in Scanadinavia, Sarita was awarded several awards for her work and also “Åpenhetspris”, an openness and honesty award, for her book that she eventually wrote about her journey called, ‘Just a Daughter’.
This is an empowering book written by a woman who dared to challenge gender inequality and eventually became influential in affecting political action. She has also been political advisor and has given lectures in schools, universities and many large gatherings to tell her story and mostly to give young people the motivation and strength to dare take their own path. She is also a speaker on gender equality at educational institutions and men and women’s organizations. Her book was published in Norway in 2008, in Finland in 2010, in Sweden in 2012. It was then published both in Swedish and in English and in Sri Lanka in 2013.
Masalamommas had a chance to interview her about her harrowing story and here’s that interview.
Can you share a little more about how old you were when you were given away by your family?
Since my parents did not have a son, they exchanged me for a boy. They adopted my cousin as their own son and moved to Scandinavia leaving me behind at my aunt’s house where I was treated virtually as a slave by my aunt. No one adopted me as their daughter and my birth was not registered. As a girl I had to work hard to earn the right to eat and to survive. I don’t remember when I was exchanged at age 2 or 3, however, I remember very well when I was only 4 and 5 and how I was told to wash the floor, wash around the animals, do the dishes and bring the water. I remember how my aunt hit me if I did not do things right. I was told by my aunt and her children that I had to serve their family because they had offered their son to my parents.
How did that affect you in school? As a daughter?
I went to school whenever my aunt’s family had time to send me there. I was so busy with all the chores at home, working at home, taking care of and playing with my older cousin’s children. I had a big responsibility at home and never attended school regularly.
Strangely the school did not care that I was missing so many days at school; they just beat me at school because I was late and missed classes and was a really bad student.
As a daughter I was worthless at home and also at school I was just worthless. I was called ‘Nalayak’ at school, and often I had to stand in front of whole class and the kids pointed at me and said ‘Nalayako, nalayako, nalayako’ Shame on you, shame on You, shame on you. Many times my teacher said that; she felt sorry for my parents who got ‘Nalayak’ daughter like me.
Since my school situation was also bad I don’t think that I learned much in the classroom. I learned to be stubborn and care about the punishments.
My Dada, my ‘father’s father’ and Dadi ’, never understood why I had to go to the school. They believed my future was taking care of the house and family. Dadi and Dada could often say, ‘why do you need school? You are going to make the rotis the rest of your life anyways. Learn to become a good daughter in-law instead, otherwise your in-laws will say we didn’t teach you anything.’
I was an unwanted daughter nobody cared about and I was a daughter who had big responsibilities at home. As just a daughter, I had so much responsibility at home that going to school regularly was impossible. Eventually I had to quit school when my grandfather had his kidney operation. It was my responsibility to take care of my old grandparents even though I was just 12 years old. I became almost an illiterate in India due to my responsibilities at home. But I am now happy that after I got married I was able to complete my high school education and stand on my own feet.
What was your relationship with your mother like?
I did not know who my real mother was until I was 9 years old. Then she and her husband came to India to show their new born son, they finally got after worthless daughters. My mother did not show me love, care or attention. She was just busy with her newborn son. I waited for this man from Europe, who was my real father, and this woman from Europe, who was my real mother to talk to me when I saw them first time, but neither of them seemed to care. That was my first meeting with my parents.
I often wished I had a normal mother-daughter relationship with my real mother, but I never had an emotional relationship with her. I united with my mother and her family when I was almost 17 years old after 15 years.
At 20 I moved out and got married. The few years I lived with my mother and her family were tense. I believe that my mother was not allowed to show any love to the daughters because she was so controlled by her husband, our so-called father. I don’t blame my biological mother for anything, she did not have a choice.
When did you become aware of our rights?
I became aware of my rights after I came to Scandinavia and after I got married. Even when you become aware of you rights, it is difficult to take them because you’re not used to having any rights. When people tell you from birth, that you don’t have rights because you have bad Kismat, you believe it. Even when you get you rights, you still have a lack of self-confidence.
How was it explained to you when you started living with your aunt? What was living with her like? Was she of same mindset?
My aunt reminded me all the time that she offered her precious son to my parents and it was my duty to serve her family in exchange in every possible way.
“Remember; even your parents don’t want you; you are worthless!” she would say. “You are just a naukar, our maidservant.” I was only five and was told to mop the floor, wash the dishes and clean the shed. If I failed to do jobs properly, my aunt would hit me. I barely managed to do them well enough, being so young. I was always so tired and hungry. I was hungry for food and love and for parents who cared for me.
My aunt and her children said many times that everybody could not go to fancy countries abroad, only the good looking and clever people go there. Only high-class people get to travel abroad, not people like you. ‘You are just a worthless girl, not even your parents want you.’ It made me feel really ugly, and feel bad about myself. I was often called, ‘Faltu Jai Kori,’ (waste of girl).
What or who did you rely on to stay mentally stable during this time?
There are many things and people who indirectly kept me mentally stable during my bad times. In my childhood my uncle was my strength. He was the only person in my aunts’ family who did not beat me without reason. He was the only father figure I had. Uncle was grateful that his son was in Europe because of me. His son had a good life now and would soon provide for his parents and family back in India. Uncle often called me, ‘princess’ and always gave me toffees when he came home from the long trips.
I survived my life of hell at aunt’s house only because of my uncle. I never wanted to disappoint him or make him sad. I also promised uncle by putting my hand on his head that I would never run away from his house or leave him alone in the house. We supported each other.
When I was in Scandinavia, my support was also one of my teachers. She was my role model. I also found positive energy from people around me, people at my school and at my workplaces. These people who were not related to me at all but still gave me something else to think about than my own violent family. This positive energy made me mentally stable.
Another thing was I always thought that my life was not as bad as many others and I always believed that there was a much better life waiting for me, if I just worked hard enough. In my young age I made up my mind that I would never cry again, never show my weakness. I was going to be so strong that I would never let anyone see my feelings, for they were only mine.
I had to find all the strength I had left and I promised myself I would never be sad, never feel sorry for myself even if people hurt me. I would never let those who tried to hurt me find happiness because of my sorrow. I wouldn’t let anybody come close to my thoughts, feelings or emotions in order to damage my mental state.
When you reunited with your family, what reason was given for that? What were the challenges in coming back to them?
My grandmother decided that my father should take me back to his family at one point because I tried to run away from home due to family violence. I was sick of living in this hellish family life. But my family found me and my grandmother. My grandmother decided that I should move into my own biological family.
For many Indian parents and families’ their daughters are a big burden; at least when I was younger I had learned that. When girls enter puberty, they become even more burden. That’s why so many parents want to get rid of them fast and marry them off. It’s also one of the reasons many girls are married off at their underage, so they (parents) don’t lost control over them. My grandparents said to me, “What is the use for you going to the school? You are going to roll rotis and take care of the house rest of your life anyways.”
I had always dreamed about and hoped for the chance to live with my own parents and siblings who would love me for who I was. Finally when I was reunited with my biological family, it was not easy. They were my family but they were strangers to me and it was very difficult in the beginning. There were many challenges: one was to get to know my new family and getting approval as part of the family and the other was to earn respect as a new family member. I was like a newcomer big baby into the family, a baby my siblings did not know anything about. All my siblings were teenagers except one.
Another big challenge was to fit into the new culture. We lived in two different cultures: one we had brought from our home country and the other here in the West. Our family was very attached to the old ‘un-culture’ they had brought from back home where the father of the house decided everything even if it was wrong.
For us kids it was hard to deal with two cultures. We could not go back to our home country because we did not fit there anymore and we could not migrate into the western culture because that was not allowed by our parents. They often said that Europe was not our country or home; we were only guests here. Our parents were here only to make money so they could live well in their old days back at home. But us kids could not go back to our home country because we did not fit in there anymore, especially the youngest one who was born in Europe and lived there from ages 2 and 4. We all had to work hard to survive and to find our identity and a sense of belonging.
How have you come to terms with the abandonment you felt growing up?
The feeling of being abandoned and the feeling of being worthless is terrible. As a child, this feeling impacts my entire childhood. It affects both physical and mental health. Childhood is a person’s basic foundation, but when a child is left alone like this the important foundation is destroyed. It affects child mentally and physically. The sense of being deserted was horrible for me. I believed that my life was just nothing. Sometimes I was so angry at myself for what I was, a deserted and unwanted girl; a girl who had no value.
I was told that I came to this world with bad destiny, and I believed that. I believed that I was a child of sins as I was told. I believed that God sent me down with bad destiny as I was told. I believed that I did something very bad in my previous life and I had to pay for it in this life. Even when I saw other children and families with a good life, I know that this was not for me, because I had another destiny. I believed that it was my duty to serve my aunt’s family because I was exchanged for their son. I tried to do my best and accepted my fate because I was worth nothing. However, I hoped that God would forgive me for whatever sins I committed in my previous life and that my destiny would change. I had been told since I was a child that I was sent into this world with ‘mandi kismet’ or ‘poor luck’ and that I was a parentless child so I believed it. Now as I am grown up I am sad to realize that I had been brought up to believe all this.
What made you decide to adopt girls in India?
When I came to Scandinavia, I knew that I would have a better life than I had back home so I decided to help other children in India who were in need. I knew it was hard for many children who were poor and lived in slums. When I was 17, I wanted to adopt a long distance child in India, but because of the rules I had to wait until I became 18 to have an economic responsibility without an adult permission. So the day I became18, I adopted my first sponsor child, ‘daughter’, in India. She was called Khushi.
We had activity days and International days at school. The International day actually went on for three days in which students from different countries talked about their cultures, religions, food, clothes, etc. I talked about India and prepared Indian food. Each country represented had exhibitions such as pictures and clothes. Through the exhibitions, I came in contact with an organization which worked with helping poor children in different countries in the world. One of the countries was India and I was told I could support a child in India or in another country, or a society or village.
I decided to adopt a child in India. I was going to school at the time and did not have a lot of money but I was able to send $1,000 Indian rupees to Khushi, my sponsor child, every month. The money was used her school uniform, school equipment and healthy food. And very often, I sent extra money to her family so they could buy things they needed such as food, a stove, clothes or a watch. I sponsored Khushi through the organization called World’s Children – Children of the World. I was happy to do something for my own country, and this proved to be a small beginning.
I wanted Khushi to have a chance for a better life, a chance I never got as a child and my small financial support prevented her from becoming a child laborer. Instead, she went to school and became a knowledgeable woman.
Over the past 25 years, I have been sponsoring children and helping them acquire a better life. I started when I was 18 and have sponsored many children since then. I sponsor these children economically in the beginning when they are just 2 to 5 years old. The the sponsorship continues until they finish school, high school, higher education and become independent. I want to give these children the opportunities and human rights I never had in my childhood. I recently acquired 15 long-distance children.
In my young age, I even have become a ‘grandmother’, because my oldest sponsored daughters are now married and are mothers themselves.
I will continue to help; most of the income from my books will be donated to children’s welfare. All the world’s children are our future and they need human rights, education and opportunities. Information and knowledge give us power in this world and, when children have these, they become, not worthless as I was, but strong, independent and valuable human beings.
What is your opinion on gender bias in the South Asian community today?
I think in our modern world is still going through gender discrimination. We all know that millions of girls are missing in South Asia. Reports tell us that thousands of female feoeticides happen every day. Many girls are endangered, millions of girls are still unwanted; they are ignored, many are abused, many are going through child labour, child marriage. Many are uneducated and many are assaulted and go through dowry death. Because our part of the world lacks girls, many girls have become a commodity and girls are being bought and girls are being sold.
But let’s not forget that our communities are developing. A good thing is that so many positive actions are taking place now days. Government and our communities are taking more and more action against discrimination against girls. There are many campaigns which are based on protecting girls and women.
Cultural change is slow but it must begin now so the next generation of girls has a better chance to secure a safe, peaceful life. Education is an absolute necessity. Measures to stop the sex trafficking is a must. Men should stand up against violence and encourage other men to change their attitude about women.
What advice do you have for South Asian parents still wanting sons and fearing daughters?
As we already know many of us women in South Asian community are still not treated as real human being. We women still live as somebody’s daughters, wives, mothers, and sisters until the day we die. We are not seen as complete individual person.
We all know women have the capacity to make the change but they are held back and do not always have the opportunities.
My advice to parents is to remember that daughters are valuable; they are a gift from God. Without daughters there will not be sons either. Many say that the sons lead the family further but it’s just a myth because the daughters give birth and that leads the family further. Take your daughters as a big gift– give your daughter love, belonging, emotional relationships, rights, opportunities, and education. In this way, your daughters will never feel worthless. Instead they will become valuable and independent women. One thing that’s very important: teach families’ sons to treat the women well and respect women. They should start to respect their own women first; mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. Then they will automatically respect our whole world’s women.
What inspired you to write your book?
Many members of my new Scandinavian and American family and friends encouraged me to write a book about my story. I didn’t think my story was so special compared to many other girls in the world. But, when my little sister, Guddi got in contact with me after ten years, things changed. She was then in a psychiatric hospital struggling with depression. She eventually became healthier over time and finally moved to her own apartment. We met often and discussed our lives.
She told me bout her sad childhood and then her bad marriage with the man whom father had found for her. As many other girls she was also forced into marry.
She said to me, “Big sister, you are the toughest woman I know about and you should write a book about your story, our story.” Then I started to write. Every time I met her I would write many pages and my book was soon ready. I decided to write the book not only because of my story or my sister’s story, but also because so many women still suffer in silence as we did. So, with my book, I want to give a face and a voice to the experiences nobody deserves.
I have dedicated my book to my little sister, Guddi; who is no longer alive. Guddi tried to take her own life earlier and people were sure it was suicide because she skipped her life-saving medication. I know I am not the only daughter treated as an outsider and “just a daughter”. There are too many daughters like me in this world. My little sister Guddi often told me sadly; you know, my husband and in-laws ordered a son from me, but I only managed to deliver them “just a daughter”. And that’s where the title of this book comes from – Just a Daughter!
**Some of the income from books in Norway was donated to Plan Norway, but most of the income goes to the Children’s Future India for the Fund called “Higher education of girls in India”. Income of books in Finland went to Plan Finland for their worldwide girl’s campaign called ‘BIAAG’ Because I Am A Girl. Income of books in Sweden goes to Plan Sweden for campaign BIAAG, Amnesty for their campaign called, My Body My Rights and some of the donation will go to Jagriti Vihara in India. The income of books in Sri Lanka goes to women’s project.
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