Education was our dowry
5 MIN READ
‘We were all girls which was very much not appreciated,’ Champa says.
Champa Ramaiah grew up in rural India in the 1990s as one of four sisters.
‘Traditionally,’ Champa explains, ‘the boy is the one who carries your name and traditions and everything.’
“They don’t consider girls to be as valuable”
Champa’s mother, Chikkamma, was taunted by her mother-in-law and other relatives, ‘you’re not able to give a boy son to your husband!’
Things got so bad that they had to leave her father’s family home.
At that time, Champa’s father, Ramaiah, was earning only around 300 rupees (under €4) a month but still wanted to pay for his daughters’ education.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to offer a dowry to their prospective husbands but he felt education was a more important gift.
Girls were not as valuable as boys
Champa Ramaiah now works as a risk innovation manager in Dublin a long way from where she grew up.
Her father, Ramaiah, and her mother, Chikkamma, have four daughters.
They had to wait seven years before their first daughter, Sunita, was born.
Then it was a few more years until their second girl, Abhinethri, followed. Champa was their third daughter and Shruthi their fourth.
‘Families wanted a boy back in India at that time,’ Champa says, ‘and, in some more rural areas of India, this attitude still persists putting women under considerable pressure.’
“Women who did not have baby boys were often badly treated”
‘It was very emotionally disturbing for my mum.’
‘Why are you spending so much on your daughters’ education?’
After the family left Ramaiah’s home, they had to start again from scratch.
‘My dad was an X-ray technician and my mum was a housewife,’ Champa says.
Chikkamma hadn’t had any formal education so she couldn’t get a job.
The first place that the two adults and four children lived was extremely modest.
‘I wouldn’t even call it a one-bedroom home,’ Champa says.
“It was just a hall and a kitchen where all six of us lived and slept”
But despite not having very much money, Ramaiah was absolutely determined that his four daughters should have the education that his own wife had been denied as a girl.
Education cost money.
Champa remembers their relatives, coming to him and saying,
‘Why are you spending so much on your daughters’ education?
They’ll just end up in someone’s house. It’s not beneficial for you.’
Education was their dowry
But Ramaiah was not afraid of challenging the norms of rural Indian society.
His answer was straightforward.
‘I will not be able to provide them any property or money but I’m going to provide them with education so they can stand on their own two feet and do whatever they want.’
Importantly, Ramaiah and Chikkamma knew that they wouldn’t be able to offer a dowry to any of their daughters’ prospective husbands.
“But they felt that education was far more important a gift.”
‘My dad fought a great deal to make us independent,’ Champa says, proudly.
Ramaiah used to work a day shift and an extra shift at night but he still had time to encourage his daughters to study.
‘Between shifts,’ Champa explains, ‘he used to come back home and sit with me and used to help us with our homework, read stories.’
He taught us everything.
He doesn’t know how to ride a bike but still he taught us.
He had the theory,’ Champa laughs.
Studying medicine by candlelight
Encouraged by their parents, the four girls worked hard at their studies.
Champa’s eldest sister, Sunita knew that she wanted to be a doctor from a very young age.
The family couldn’t afford to send Sunita to a private school in order to study medicine in English so she studied it instead in Kannada, the regional language.
That might sound like an obscure language to many Irish people but there are an estimated 57 million Kannada speakers in India.
When she went to university, everything was taught in English so she then had to learn English and medicine at the same time.
“Champa recalls Sunita studying at all hours”
‘We used to have power cuts in India back then,’ she says. ‘So Sunita used to read by candlelight.’
‘As kids, we used to look at her, and say, ‘Mum, what is she doing? Why is she not coming for playing?’
The answer was always the same, ‘she has to read, don’t disturb her’.
All four sisters now have a least one 3rd level qualification
Sunita qualified as a doctor and now works as a gynecologist at the world-renowned Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, England.
Abhinethri, Champa and Shruthi all took engineering as their first degree.
All four have at least one 3rd Level qualification.
‘I’m from that era where you had only two choices in India; either you could become a doctor or an engineer.’
‘Now it’s a little bit broadened,’ Champa jokes, ‘you can become a doctor, engineer, accountant and something else of your own choice.’
After graduating, Champa started her career in Mumbai and spent three years there working at an engineering company.
“Going home to see her parents meant taking a 17-hour bus ride south”
When Sunita got married, she came to Ireland and with financial help from Sunita’s husband, also a doctor, Champa took the opportunity to join her.
She got a Master’s in Data Analytics from DCU.
Accepted for who she was
It was a great struggle for Champa to get the funds she needed to pay for her Master’s degree as she didn’t have assets for a bank surety.
Ultimately, she feels that it was all worth it as it led to her current role at Bank of Ireland which, she says, ‘has an amazing work atmosphere, and very kind and helpful people.’
‘Back in rural India,’ Champa explains, ‘the woman’s family gives a dowry to the husband.
So the man goes to her family’s house to see her family and check out the financials.
“It’s an arranged marriage, not romantic”
Of course, Champa’s family couldn’t offer a dowry for her elder sister but what they could say was that Sunita was well-educated.
‘My father always told us, ‘you can get married at whatever time you feel like you’re ready, and you can marry whatever guy you feel like’, Champa says.
They started looking for a husband for Sunita at the age of 26 and she eventually got married when she was 30.
‘My brother-in-law, I think he’s a godsend,’ Champa says.
‘He did not ask for even a single penny.’
He accepted Sunita for who she was.
Improving the family’s situation
Champa’s second sister, Abhinethri now lives in US with her husband.
She has settled in Long Beach, California and works as Senior Consultant.
When she decided to go to the US, alone, Champa’s family had nobody in the US who could look after Abhinethri.
Champa explains how it usually works, ‘if somebody wants to come to Ireland from India, for example, they’re like, ‘here is your aunt, you can go stay with them,’ or, ‘here is your community’.
“But they knew no one in the US”
Ramaiah was very worried because he couldn’t say to someone, ‘my daughter is coming. Will you look out for her and keep an eye on her?’
But Abhinethri was adamant that she was going.
‘She said, ‘no, I’m going. If I go there, I will get more money and I can bring more financial help into the house, and we can improve our situation.’
Champa’s youngest sister, Shruthi, joined Abhinethri in the US.
She studied Industrial Engineering and now has a two-year visa during which time she can work in the US.
After that, she is unsure whether she will be able to stay or will have to return to India.
Walking to work instead of a 3-hour commute
How does working in Ireland compare to India?
In India, because we have such a large population, there is so much competition. You have to work like a donkey to prove that you’re better than others.’
‘But here, people appreciate you and your efforts.’
‘Here, I can work flexibly, but, back in India, I used to work for sometimes 10 to 12 hours, straight.
Then I would sleep for 3 to 4 hours.
I would have to get up early so I could get to work on time.’
Sometimes it would take me 3 hours to get to work in the morning and 3 hours to get home.’
‘Here, I live in city center and I walk to work.’
Supporting their parents from abroad
Although Champa and her sisters are grateful for everything their parents sacrificed to enable them to go to university and build their careers abroad, there’s one thing they miss.
The four women live in Ireland, England and the US while their elderly parents remain in India.
They have considered asking them to move abroad permanently to join them but it’s difficult.
‘They have their friends over there, they speak only Kannada (they can’t speak English) and they like where they live.’
“The four daughters have established an international rota.”
‘We make sure that every quarter that one of us goes back to India to make sure that everything’s fine,’ Champa says.
She went back herself for three weeks in December.
Now that so many things can be done online, it’s a lot easier for them to pay bills for their parents from abroad.
‘I even order groceries for them, online, from Ireland,’ Champa says, laughing.
Good will come back to you
She says that her father isn’t overly religious but he believes that ‘if you do good, it will come back to you.’
‘’You can say whatever you want’’, Champa says he is fond of saying, ‘’but you girls are in a good position even though I didn’t have anything’.’
He is always encouraging us to do more and more good deeds.
This is something I try to live by every day,’ says Champa.
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