The other day, shortly after Tetyana Kretova and I launched our art project for charity – the I Femme Project, we received a deeply touching email from Madhumita Das, from India, who recently graduated from the Master in Corporate Communication from IE University.
“Dear Viet Ha and Tetyana,
Even if not the face, I would like to be a voice for your project.”
(Madhumita, little girl in the front row, with the group of Hollywood superstars:
Tom Cruise, Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, Melanie Griffith, Antonio Banderas and many more)
We met with Madhumita in person at a coffee shop in Paseo de Castellana, Madrid, on a rainy workday evening, to listen to her heartfelt story that left us in total shock, admiration and awe. We felt that the I FEMME project which we have been spending the past year working on, is going to change lives of many girls like Madhumita, and this gives us much strength and motivation to push the project forward despite a great deal of obstacles along the way.
In a country where the proverb goes ‘A home without a daughter is like a body without soul’, how can girl infanticide be so rampant? Thousands of girls are killed every day in India. They are either aborted from their mother’s womb or killed after birth.
Even if some are lucky enough to be born, they are not welcome by their families as they are thought to be nothing but a curse. This is due to the dowry system, where parents of the girl must pay a huge sum of money to the family she gets married into.
Education of a girl child is thought to be a waste. Why spend on her when her only duty will be to serve her husband.
And I know all this not because I did an extensive research but because I have lived it.
This story is deep-rooted among the generations of women in my family. My family was from a little village on the outskirts of West Bengal, India. I never knew them, but from what I heard from the childhood memories of my mother, both my parents belonged to rich families of landlords when prosperity was measured in land and cattle.
Like every other girl child born in that village, and following norm and culture to use girls to form family alliances, my mom was married off at the age of 9. She didn’t even know what that meant as she continued living with her parents until she hit puberty. She wasn’t entitled to a share of the land or the family treasures. Why would she be when her only job was to raise offspring to continue the family lineage and answer to her husband’s every beck and call.
At the age of 13, when my mother became a woman, she went to live with her in laws. By the age of 14 she gave birth to my elder sister and brought down the family’s rage on her as she was unable to produce a son. By the age of 16, after she had lost a baby, she gave birth to me. Alas, another girl child! Her in laws started treating her poorly and she suffered domestic violence. That is when she took it upon herself to take matters in her own hands. She started saving up whatever little she could and after a couple of months of my birth, she ran away with my elder sister and me. One late evening, she took the first bus she could find without having any idea where it was headed.
The next morning when the bus stopped, she found herself in a strange city. Kolkata as it is called now. It was dirty and crowded, she was super scared but she knew that she had found her freedom. She found herself a nook under a bridge, made it our home and started providing for us through beggary. She told me that more than the fear of death, or rape, it was the craving for food that made her strong and resilient.
After a few months of living in the streets, a kind family took us in. They gave us shelter and food while my mother worked as their maid and nanny. My mother told me that even at that age, she would put my elder sister and me to learn alphabets and poems with the other two kids of the house as she believed that education would be our only chance to escape what she had been through.
My father’s family though were important people and had a long reach. They found my mother. It was very lucky for my mother that they didn’t perform honour killing because she had disgraced her family. They forced her to go back to the village, but the family she was living with and working for educated her about her rights. She used this knowledge to let her stay in the city. They wouldn’t let her live alone as she was stamped with their family name, so made my father settle in the city too. The aim was to try again for a boy child.
In a year my mother got pregnant again and started getting lots of visits from her in laws. She says those few months were the best in her life. She was doted upon and we kids had our grandparents and lots of treats around. She gave birth – again a girl child! No more visits, no more doting. After a couple of weeks, she woke up to find my father missing along with all our savings. She waited and prayed that he would come back but the only thing that came back was the news that he had gotten married to another woman she payed him a huge dowry.
She got a shock and fell sick never more to leave the bed again. She suffered a full body paralysis. Our family didn’t even check on us. Why would they when my mother had just produced three disgraces? Our neighbor were helpful. They put my mother in a Mother Teresa home, and divided the three of us between them. My elder sister was taken in by my mother’s best friend’s family, I was given refuge by a neighbour’s family member, and my baby sister was adopted by one of the neighbour’s who was infertile.
My mother received news one day that my elder sister had been sold to some man and the family having received a huge sum of money had moved away. My mother knowing that I was in grave danger of undergoing the same, asked a volunteer from Mother Teresa to help her. She was an Argentinian lady. One day she came to the place I was living in, paid the lady of the house a good lumpsum of money and took me away from there. I found sanctuary in the Mother Teresa home along with my mother. After around 8 months of living there the nuns told my mother that she would have to find an alternate place for me to live as the home was riddled with diseases and being a child, it could be extremely fatal for me. The kind Argentinian lady and I had formed a good friendship. She was willing to take me in. But she couldn’t keep me with her as it was illegal. So, she put me in an ngo she was working for.
I remember clearly the first day I was sent to school. I hated everything about it and made a big racket. I had never before been confined to sit inside four walls, mingle with other kids and recite nonsensical alien words. I wanted my freedom to be outdoors, climb trees, be naughty without being checked, in short be wild.
After a lot of patience by my teachers and tutors, I was finally able to read. The first book I read was a fairy tale, Cinderella. It opened up my world! It awed me to experience such beauty just through words. And then I started reading. Reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. Doctors kept saying that I would lose my mother in a few months. She held on and I kept reading. I was taken from one ngo and put into another and then another. My life was a turbulence and I read. Books were the only thing anchoring me to be sane and cocooning me inside a net of fantasy, magic, mystery, adventures, sci-fi, and most importantly safety.
I very soon and very easily rocketed to the top of my class. I loved the competition and being ahead of it all. I was made into a class monitor, then a prefect, then the president of House St. Anne, and in came pouring achievement after achievement. And all the while I read.
Education expanded my knowledge, helped me face my troubles with an open mind and gave me the ability to look at life with a better perspective. It empowered me because I knew that even if life snatched away everything else, knowledge would always help me re-start.
It is high time for our society to stop paying homage to idols alone and start paying attention to the reality made of flesh and flood.
If being a woman is her only fault, then educate her, alleviate her, and keep her at par with the men. Then you’ll realize, not only is she a wonderful mother, a loving wife, a disciplined daughter, a caring sister, but also a bastion and a very successful leader.
What she needs is just a chance – let her show you that she is not a curse but a BOON. It’s time to be a real force of empowerment for girls.