Just a daughter no more
speaks for oppressed
girls of the world
Sarita Skagnes remembers being at least 16 before she got her first hug.
It wasn’t from the father who abused her, the grandparents she’d waited on back in India or the cousin who raped her.
It came from a woman in Oslo, Norway, whose house the teenaged Sarita was paid to clean.
Now 43, the native of Punjab was one of India’s unwanted daughters, the third girl born to parents who longed for a son to carry the family name, earn money and look after them when they grew old.
Sarita was considered a burden, a dowry-in-waiting to be paid when her parents married her off.
Many South Asian girls born into patriarchal social structures don’t get that far. Their problem has generated global headlines and been recognized by the United Nations.
“There are still many parents who kill their daughters” in countries including India, China and Pakistan, Sarita said, adding that 65 million girls are “missing” in South Asia.
“The numbers will say that most of them are missing in India,” she said. “That’s because for many, many years, many parents have killed their daughters or aborted their daughters, because they are just daughters.”
“Just A Daughter” is the name of Sarita’s book, about her upbringing and her deliverance from family elders who treated her as property.
A former best-seller in Norway first published in 2007, “Just a Daughter” has also been published in Sweden, Finland and now the United States, where Sarita is on a book tour that brought her to Burnsville and Bloomington and will conclude in New York.
Her aide and companion on the tour is 73-year-old Sonja Johnston of Burnsville, whose second cousin, Alex Skragnes, is Sarita’s husband. Johnston first met Sarita in 1999, when the couple came to visit Midwestern relatives.
“I liked her right away,” Johnston said. “But I had no idea she had such a horrible past.”
Already a celebrated figure in Norway, who’d been asked to consult with the justice minister on domestic violence and girls’ rights, Sarita asked Johnston to edit an English-language version of “Just a Daughter.”
The Burnsville woman worked on it for two years, ever patient with Sarita’s evolving English skills.
Johnston arranged to have Sarita speak to Burnsville Rotarians on Oct. 25. This Sunday, Oct. 28, Sarita will speak at the 10:30 a.m. service at Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 10715 Zenith Ave. S., Bloomington, where Johnston has been music minister for 36 years.
Johnston will accompany the author to New York to promote the 3,000-edition printing, royalties from which are being donated to help girls in India.
“She is my manager, she is my editor, she is my mom, she is my business director,” said an appreciative Sarita, whose own mother traded her for a boy.
Just a daughter
After she was conceived, Sarita said her Sikh parents visited a temple to pray and seek the blessing of a son in her mother’s womb.
Instead, the couple bore their third girl. Her father allegedly tried to smother the baby.
“And he thought I was dead, but after some while I started to breathe again,” Sarita said. “This is a story told by my aunt and grandmother.”
When she was 2 her parents traded her for a male cousin, whom they adopted. They left India for Norway, leaving Sarita (not her birth name) behind to work as a maidservant at her aunt’s house.
She was raped by a cousin when she was no older than 5.
“I don’t remember the exact age,” said Sarita, whose aunt insisted that servitude was her God-given destiny.
“My aunt always told me she had offered her son to my parents as their son, so it was my duty to serve them as (part of) this exchange,” she said.
She met her parents at age 9 when they visited Punjab to show off the biological son they’d finally conceived. When she was 12, Sarita was sent to care for her father’s aging parents.
When she was 15, her father raped her while visiting his parents, Sarita said. Her honor was gone in her grandmother’s eyes.
“And that was the reason my grandmother said to her son, ‘No, you are taking your daughter along with you because you did a mistake,’ ” she said.
So Sarita joined her parents, two sisters and two brothers in Oslo, where she attended school and cleaned houses to help support the family. Her father, Sarita said, was a “crazy man.”
“Sometimes he just beat us first and tell the reason later,” she said.
What really set him off was seeing a photo taken by Sarita’s sister, Guddi, of Sarita and the son of one of the homeowners she worked for.
“We were not boyfriend and girlfriend. We were just friends,” Sarita said. “I think (my) family made us boyfriend and girlfriend.”
After several days of being confined to the house, Sarita convinced her father to let her go to school and work.
The escape was permanent. The boy’s mother took her in. She and the boy, Alex (not his given name) were married 22 years ago.
The small Punjabi community in Norway was aghast at the unarranged, cross-cultural marriage, Sarita said. Her father threatened to kill the young couple and hired a kidnapper, she said. The newlyweds took new names and got a “secret telephone number.”
“So I became a secret,” Sarita said. “My family thought I had moved abroad because they couldn’t find me anymore in Norway, but I just became a secret. I cut my hair and eyebrows.”
Today she considers herself an author, activist and fundraiser for the rights of girls as well as children forced into servitude.
“It’s not a unique story,” Sarita said of her own past.
Yet she broke free and spoke up.
“He (God) gave me many tests through my life,” Sarita said. “But he or she also gave me the strength or power to do something about it. Maybe I was picked. I don’t know.”