Rosenblum: Discarded daughter has emerged as 'ray of sunshine'

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2012 - 9:47 PM
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Sarita Skagnes

Sarita Skagnes has no birth certificate for a chillingly pragmatic reason: She was to be killed as a baby for the crime of being born a girl.

But her father's attempt to smother her at 8 weeks old was unsuccessful. She lived to endure a devastating childhood, abandoned by her parents at 3, forced to work as an indentured servant, raped by two family members and plagued by hunger and loneliness.

Yet Skagnes triumphed, never to be smothered again.

Now 43, happily married and an international advocate for children's rights, Skagnes is in the Twin Cities this week to speak about her life -- more accurately, her two lives -- and her best-selling book, "Just A Daughter," newly translated into English.

"I came to this earth as Satwant Kaur of the Shimbe caste," Skagnes writes. "I was just a daughter -- good for nothing, just like many other daughters."

Skagnes was born in 1969 in Punjab, India, her parents' third girl. During the pregnancy, her mother sought out priests and gurus who blessed her stomach and promised her a son.

"When I came to the world," Skagnes said, "I was a catastrophe."

At 3, her family moved to Oslo, Norway, leaving her behind with an aunt and uncle who, she believed, were her parents. In exchange, her biological parents took their nephew with them to raise as their long-awaited son.

"He would have a good life, a rich life, a good education," Skagnes said.

She would have nothing of the sort. At 4, she began mopping floors and washing dishes. She slept on the kitchen floor and waited until after her family ate to consume the scraps.

For five years, she was sexually abused by an older cousin. Her aunt was enraged to learn of it, telling Skagnes it was her fault.

She attended school sporadically but felt out of place with her "shabby clothes."

When she was 9, "the couple from Norway" visited India with their newborn son (conceived after Skagnes' mother aborted two or three female fetuses). Skagnes remembers the joyful party held for them, with rare sweets. And she remembers being told that the Norwegian couple were actually her parents. She was stunned, and hopeful.

"I thought they lived like a king and queen," she said. "I thought that if I was a good girl, doing my job properly, maybe they would take me to Norway." She served them tea, hoping they would notice her. "But they were so busy with this stupid baby boy." (She laughs at the comment, emphasizing that she loves her younger brother "very much.")

Her father finally came for her when she was 16. First, he raped her. She ran away. He promised to never touch her again, and he didn't. She moved to Norway and began school again, full time. Life was comfortable. She had a bed, food and clothes.

Cleaning a house at 19, she noticed that the homeowner's son, Alex Skagnes, often stuck around when she arrived. They became friends, then more. He told her that she was beautiful, "a ray of sunshine." When her father found a photograph of his daughter and Alex, he beat her up and quickly arranged for her marriage to a man in India. She ran away again, cut her hair, changed her name and, in 1990, married Alex.

She hasn't had contact with her parents in more than 20 years.

In 2004, Skagnes reconnected with one of her sisters, who was in a psychiatric hospital. The sister encouraged Skagnes to write a book about her life. Skagnes wrote 1,000 pages in eight months. Then her sister committed suicide, and a devastated Skagnes lost her desire for the project. A few years later she realized "this was not about me or my sister."

This was about what could be for other girls.

The book, "Bare en Datter" (Just a Daughter), was published in Norway in 2007, becoming a best-seller soon re-published in Finland and Sweden. Skagnes found herself speaking at Parliament and being stopped on the street for her autograph.

But celebrity doesn't drive her. Baby girls still are being killed in India, she said, mostly in poorer villages. Many girls have no chance at an education. For 25 years, Skagnes has sponsored girls in India so they can stay in school. Among them, one is now a doctor, another an engineer.

She donates book royalties to her nonprofit, Higher Education for Girls in India (www.saritaskagnes.com).

"This is something she needed to do," said Sonja Johnston, minister of music at the Minnesota Valley Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington. Johnston, a popular Twin Cities pianist and singer, is Alex Skagnes' second cousin. She spent two years translating Skagnes' book into English. An immensely grateful Skagnes calls Johnston "Mom."

"I was so tested, but I didn't fail," Skagnes said. "All the bad things were not my fault. That took me 30 years to figure out."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

  • A LIFE REGAINED

    Sarita Skagnes will speak at 7 p.m. Friday at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Minnetonka, 605 Rice St. E., Wayzata, and at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Minnesota Valley Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, 10715 Zenith Av., S., Bloomington. Both events are open to the public.

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