By Kerri Whelan
October 18, 2019

A baby girl was born in India. Ten fingers, 10 toes, completely healthy.

Twelve years later, that same little girl believed she wasn’t meant to be alive.

Her name is Uma. But she says her father wanted it to be Amar. Or Samir. Or Nikhil. A boy’s name. She was born a girl, so she dishonored him. She was a disgrace before she could even form words of her own.

There are some families in India who hope to have sons instead of daughters. Sometimes a boy is more valued because it’s understood he’ll be able to make an income for the family. A girl, however, can be seen as more of a liability, because her family will have to pay a dowry when she gets married.

But the level of resentment that Uma’s father felt about having a girl was not societally ordinary, by any means. To him, Uma was a curse.

Uma’s mother, the woman who spent 16 hours pushing her into the world, was equally as much of a failure to Uma’s father.

“My father made it clear what the consequence would be if he’d married a woman who couldn’t bear a son,” Uma says. “She wouldn’t have a life to live. And neither would her child — if that child was a daughter.”

So Uma’s mother took that child and ran.

The only place Uma’s mother could think to go was her mother-in-law’s farm. It was where the family of the man she was running from lived, but there was nowhere else.

“She had to give it a shot,” Uma says, looking down.

In an unlikely intro to part two of Uma’s story, they were welcomed with open arms. Uma’s mother was given a job working in the cotton fields. And Uma’s grandmother promised Uma she’d make up for her son’s wrongdoings.

It was their new start. And it seemed as if their struggles might be over.

Twelve years went by. Uma’s mother spent each one breaking her back in the cotton fields. Uma says she spent each one struggling with guilt, believing that she was the reason her mom wasn’t living a happier life, one with a supportive husband and a son.

And at 12 years, Uma and her mother walked into the kitchen to find Uma’s grandmother — the woman who took them in when there was nowhere else to go — dead on the floor. It was her grandmother’s age that took her, but Uma’s self-hatred was so deep that she believed she brought her grandmother bad luck, and that her death was her fault.

“When I met her lifeless eyes, all I could think was, ‘that’s my fate. Not hers.’”

Uma believed she was an ink smudge in a story that was never supposed to be written. She says the quiet moments were always the worst, because that’s when the voice in her head was the loudest. It’d tell her she was a mistake, and that everyone would be better off without her. “I’d always agree,” she says. 

But her mother didn’t. She’d watched Uma live through two horrific ordeals. She believed Uma was destined to be here, and to become someone great.

So she sent her to school.

The chemistry tests Uma aced got her out of bed each morning. The characters in the novels she read became her friends. The problems she solved helped her decipher her own.

Death was no longer her purpose — education was.

School kept Uma moving forward; at 18, she got accepted into university. But amid the excitement before her first day, her mother suffered a number of epileptic seizures and could no longer work.

So Uma made a sacrifice. She took a year off from school to take care of her mother. In that time, she fought for girls’ right to education. She became a member of the Girls Advocacy Alliance, a Plan program campaigning for equal rights for girls and women. “I was able to convince girls who dropped out of school to go back.”

And every bit of Uma’s work in the alliance helps change some of the perceptions about daughters in her culture. Because when girls go to school, they become professional women and help make an income for their family. Just like a son would.

Uma recalls a moment in that year when she sat on her mother’s bedside one afternoon and told her she was sorry if she made her life harder than it needed to be.

She says her mother smiled, took her hand, and said the misfortunes in her own life happened because no one gave her an education. She worked hard so Uma could prove them wrong — the people who think women are nothing. And she’d do it all over again if she could.

“My fate isn’t up for someone else to decide,” Uma says with watery eyes. “I can make my own fate. And because my mom sent me to school, I did.”

Today, we still live in a world where some fathers think that having a daughter is a burden. We might not see that completely change for a long time. But when girls have an education, they use textbooks like armor — armor no one can crack. They wear it in the crusade to find out who they really are. And they become unbreakable.