June 13th & 18th @ Roxie Theatre
1) What was your childhood like? Did you face any discrimination?
I faced discrimination from the day I was born and lived in constant fear. My parents, already had two daughters and desperately wanted a son. When my mother became pregnant with me, they began visiting temples to pray for a boy. The gurus blessed my mother’s womb, so when I was born it was a huge disappointment.
My father wanted me dead because I was “just a daughter”. I was later told by my family that my father was so drunk the day that I was born that he actually said, “Kill both mother and daughter!” After holding my nose and mouth for some time, my father thought I was dead. However, after a while I began to breathe again.
My grandparents told me that people condoled with my parents because I was a girl and said they would pray for a son next time. That was my welcome to this world 45 years ago. Unfortunately the same thing still happens with many newborn girls.
2) Your family moved to Scandinavia when you were 3 and you were sent to live with your father’s sister. How was this explained to you?
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 as a slave. No one adopted me as their daughter and my birth was never registered.
As a girl I had to work hard to earn the right to eat and to survive. I don’t remember whether I was two or three-years-old when I was exchanged, but I remember when I was only four, I was made to do lots of chores around the house. I remember how my aunt hit me if I did not do things just right. My aunt and her children told me that I had to serve their family because they had offered their son/brother to my parents.
3) When you were young, did you have a sense that anything was out of the ordinary with respect to the way that you were raised as your extended family’s maid servant?
I was just a child and I did not have any sense for what was right and what was wrong. I was told that I born into this world with “mandi kismet”, bad destiny, and I believed that. I was told that I was a child of sin and had done something very bad in my previous life and I had to pay for it in this life. When I saw other happy families, I felt that this was not for me, because of my destiny. I believed that it was my duty to serve my aunt’s family since I was exchanged for their son. I tried to do my best and accepted my fate because I was told and believed that 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. Now that I am an adult, I am sad to realize that I had been brought up to believe all this.
4) What was it like being reunited with your family as a teenager?
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. In my mid-teens I was finally reunited with my biological family, but it was not easy. They were my family, but they were strangers to me and it was very difficult in the beginning. Also, my father was a violent man who ruled the family with threats and frequent beatings so we all, including my mother, feared him.
5) What inspired/motivated you to put your story in writing?
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 that tragic 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, but she became healthier over time, finally moving to her own apartment. We met often and discussed our lives. She talked about her sad childhood and then her unhappy marriage with the man that my father forced her to marry. She said to me, “Big sister, you are the toughest woman I know and you should write a book about your story…our story.” That is when 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 sisters’ story, but because so many women still suffer as we did. So, with my book, I want to give a face and a voice to the discrimination and violence that so many women face.
I have dedicated my book to my little sister, Guddi, who is no longer alive. Because Guddi had tried to take her own life earlier, 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 was able to deliver “ just a daughter”. And that’s where the title of this book comes from – Just a Daughter!!
6) Do you think India’s girls are endangered? If yes, why?
I do not think that India’s girls are more endangered then many other girls in south Asia. Many girls in south Asia including our country are endangered and there are many reasons for that. First of all, many girls are still unwanted. The killing of new born girls unfortunately still occurs and there are still many parents who abort their daughters. As we all know, millions of girls are “missing”. Yes, I think we can say that many girls and mothers are endangered when a mother who loves her child more than anything in the world is forced to ‘kill’, that is, abort her daughter or a mother is forced to give away her daughters.
Because millions of girls are missing, the human trafficking of girls has increased. Because our part of the world lacks girls, many girls have become a commodity and girls are being bought and girls are being sold – in this case they certainly are endangered.
7) What advice do you have for other Indian women and girls?
There needs to be a concerted effort on the part of the government and non-governmental agencies to change the culture of discrimination. Women should be encouraged to go to school and learn that they are valuable human beings and have the same human rights as men. They should form small groups and share their stories and gain strength from shared experiences. And, they should become politically active.
8) What can we do to make India a safer place for girls?
Women have the capacity to make the change but they are held back and do not always have the opportunities. Education is an absolute necessity. Moving to stop the sex trafficking is a must. Men should stand up against violence and encourage other men to change their attitude towards women. Cultural change is slow but it must begin now so the next generation of girls, have a better chance to have a safe, peaceful life.
9) Is there anything personally you are doing to promote the value of girls and end gender discrimination and violence?
I try my best to spread awareness about discrimination of girls and violence against children and women – something I personally experienced both physically and mentally. I volunteer with the Support Centre for Victims of Incest and also with the Centre for Battered Women. I have also been a political advisor through the Norwegian Parliament’s Women’s Group, called the Reference Group and also spoken to the Parliament’s Men’s Panel and also other men’s group such as Men Against Violence.
Finally, because I have my opportunities and rights, I want to give the same to other children through supporting organizations who work with children and women who are victims of violence. I intend to continue to fight FOR children’s rights to education, good health, protection, economic security, and good social life and love, and will fight AGAINST misuse, abuse, exploitation and discrimination.
I am involved with organizations Plan Norway, Plan Sweden and Plan Finland and also sponsor children in India through Plan India. Plan Scandinavia sold my books and the money goes to support children of abuse. I also have a fund in India together with Children Future India called Fund for Higher Education of Girls in India.
For the last 25 years, I have been sponsoring children by helping them have a better life. I sponsor these children when they are only two to five-years-old and help them finish school, college and become independent. Despite being fairly young, I am already a ‘grandmother’, because my oldest sponsored daughters are now married and are mothers themselves.
10) How did you become involved with sponsoring young 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 support a child in India, but because of the laws, I had to wait until I turned18 to have an economic responsibility without an adults’ permission. So the day I became 18, I sponsored my ‘daughter’, Khushi. I was in school and did not have a lot of money but I was able to send 1,000 Indian rupees to Khushi every month. The money went for her school uniform, school supplies 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 etc. I sponsored Khushi through the organization 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 better life and receive a good education, a chance I never got when I was a child. My small financial support prevented her from becoming a child laborer.
11) What do you hope will come of you sharing your story with a broader audience?
I am lucky to have survived to tell mine and my sisters’ story. Many people may think the story is strong, unbelievable, tough and very sad. My appeal is not for sympathy; we need action to correct the wrongs and stop these violations against human dignity. We cannot close our eyes and ears to what happens around us. We cannot ignore this and say that it is a personal issue within a given family. The discrimination and violence my sisters and I, and millions of women around the world endured and are still enduring are not private issues; these are nothing less than criminal. When a particular conflict in a family becomes violent, it affects the entire society and redress must be sought. With my story, I hope to create awareness especially around gender disparity, incest and family violence. I also hope to stimulate dialogue around these issues so that our political leaders, government and people in positions of power can take more action to solve these crimes.
Thank you to Amisha Patel for interviewing Sarita Skagnes
Petals in the Dust: The Endangered Indian Girls examines the condition of an endangered class of people living in one of the most populous, culturally and economic vibrant countries: modern India. They come from all walks of life and share only one common trait: they are female.
A patriarchal mindset, a preference for sons and a deep-seated intolerance has led to the murder of 50 million girls and women in India in the last century. They continue to lose their lives in this century to infanticide, sex-selective abortions, starvation and medical neglect, dowry deaths and brutal gang rapes. The declining female population is also leading to increased crimes against women including trafficking and bride buying. By 2020 there will be 20 percent more men than women.
The film explores the cultural origins of this vast genocidal crime and includes the voices of activists and gender experts. By profiling the unimaginable stories of brave survivors, viewers enter the chilling realities girls and women are currently enduring, NOW, providing a sense of urgency in helping to change status quo.
Get exclusive updates on Petals in the Dust screenings - and what we’re doing to create awareness and dialogue to end incidences of gender violence in India - straight to your inbox