‘My grandmother was not happy because I was a girl’
New to the Parish: Sweta Pandey arrived in Ireland from India in 2016
Sweta Pandey’s relatives often complain that her father wasted his money by investing in his daughter’s education. In their family’s village, paying for a young woman to go to university is still considered lunacy by many.
“Where I am from, girls are not seen as equals,” says the 25-year-old from the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. “My grandmother was not happy when I was born because I was a girl. People often abandon a girl child or even murder her. Selective abortions for girls still prevails in a lot of India. But my father is a very strong figure. He took a stand and said ‘she’s my child, I want her’.”
Pandey was born in a purpose-built township in 1992 where her father had found work at an electricity power plant. While her family are upper caste, her parents grew up in poverty and were determined to provide a better life for their children.
When I was growing up, a lot of relatives in my village would tell my father he was stupid to be educating his daughter
“My parents were married very young. Well, that’s all in expectation because we don’t have their birth certificates. My mum’s village only recently got roads and electricity. I’m talking about a part of India that is so remote most people don’t know it exists.”
Pandey’s father was about 16 when he married her mother, who was a few years younger. “I think he was 15 when he left school in search of work. There was no money so he helped running a cable TV connection and taught at the primary school. He also plays keyboard and banjo so played at weddings to make extra money.”
When he was 21, her father was offered an apprenticeship at a coal-based power station in a town called Rihand Nagar. Shortly after the family’s arrival, Pandey’s mother gave birth to her daughter.
“Apparently it had been a difficult pregnancy and the gynaecologist didn’t have the assistance needed to deal with it. She was afraid if this woman dies it will be on me. The only hospital was a 70km drive from town and there were no roads. They had to take a boat and I was born on that boat.”
Asked how her mother dealt with giving birth without proper medical support, Pandey says her parents’ childhood struggles had prepared them for anything. “They’re used to hardships. Their childhood was taken away from them but they decided to give us a childhood. My father was determined not to let what happened to him happen to anyone else in the family. He would work extra shifts and my mum was constantly trudging around the house making sure everything was perfect.”
Pandey and her two brothers were sent to the local Catholic school where they learned English. “My father can read and write in English but my mum doesn’t speak it at all. The Catholic schools in India have an image of being disciplined and teaching very good English, which is damn important if you want to succeed in life.”
Pandey’s parents regularly reminded their daughter about the importance of completing her education. “They would say, ‘excel in school’, or ‘we don’t have the money to pay for your life’. They were constantly encouraging but I had to do well. When I was growing up, a lot of relatives in my village would tell my father he was stupid to be educating his daughter.”
Pandey studied hard and graduated first in the town in her final exams. Her parents wanted her to become an engineer but after some persuasion she convinced them to let her study economics at the University of Delhi. After graduation, she worked for a while before doing a masters in development studies in Mumbai. She was in her final semester when a friend suggested she apply for postgraduate courses in Ireland and Germany.
Pandey had always dreamed of studying abroad and applied to a number of universities. In early 2016, she was offered a place to study economics at Trinity College. “I hadn’t told my parents a word. My mum started crying frantically and said ‘I only have one daughter, what if she never comes home?’ My dad was calm and poised and said, ‘don’t make a decision in haste’.”
When I first arrived, everyone was so tall and I looked like a mouse
Pandey told her parents she had failed to secure a scholarship and was nervous about the cost. “He said, ‘we’ll get a loan’. I said no but my dad’s firm gives out student loans at a subsidised rate so we got that. My father had to use his life savings to furnish the rest.
“I was so stressed before I came. I had studied for very cheap and went to government institutes. I was worried if I failed I’d have let everyone down. Meanwhile, the companions in my father’s work were saying he’s spending the amount people spend on their daughter’s wedding on her education. But my dad said, ‘my daughter’s goal in life is not to be someone’s wife’. My parents have never told me to get married. And there’s also a thing called my consent.”
Pandey arrived in Dublin in September 2016. Two days after she landed, she was mugged outside her apartment. “It was awful. I called my boyfriend and said, ‘I’m booking my ticket home right now’. I was angry and so scared. But I stayed.”
She also struggled with the workload at Trinity. “I didn’t know what to do and cried over it. On top of that, I was the only coloured person in my class. When I first arrived, everyone was so tall and I looked like a mouse.”
Fortunately, an Irish classmate offered to help and Pandey made it through the year-long masters. “I would not have passed the course without him and he’s one of my closest friends now. My classmates were fabulous people and I made some really good friends.”
She hoped to return to India after completing the course but was unable to find work. Instead, she was offered a nine-month paid internship at the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in Dublin.
“Dublin is good now and I like it more that I have friends. I know the city and have a more stable house. I also like the fact that I can go to the sea and breathe. Where I grew up there is no pollution but Delhi is suffocating. I missed the greenery from home and it’s easier to get that there.”