WATCH: Documentary shows inhumane treatment of baby girls in China

sex-selective abortion

A clip from a 1996 documentary investigating the state of China’s orphanages has been making the rounds on social media for its 25th anniversary. “The Dying Rooms,” which won a Peabody Award, exposed how baby girls were treated — either aborted, abandoned, killed, or left to suffer in cold and uncaring orphanages.

Kate Blewett and Brian Woods visited China, where they saw grossly inhumane conditions. Children were tied to chairs, unable to move, and deprived of any affection, education, or attention. Neglected and alone, the children compulsively rock back and forth in their chairs. “All girls, of course,” a woman, speaking anonymously, said. “Unless they are handicapped boys. But healthy boys are never abandoned. Ever.”

READ: 40 years of death and heartache: The results of China’s One-Child Policy

Even infants in cribs were tied down, unable to move and left to soak in their own soiled diapers. Blewett said when she entered the rooms, they smelled overwhelmingly of sour milk, urine, and body odor.

“The One-Child Policy tended to not take Chinese traditional cultural son preferences into consideration,” Blewett was told. “Sons generally carry the family name, so obviously the son is more important than the daughter. Now because each family is limited, in a sense, to only one child, the gender becomes a very important concern to each family.” When boys are born in China, parents celebrate with fireworks; when girls are born, the video explains that parents “celebrate” by naming their daughters Lai-Di or Zheo-Di, which means “baby brother come.” Over six million women in China have been given these names. In the countryside, girls are referred to as “maggots in the rice.”


Though the One-Child Policy has been loosened, not much has changed, and the preference for sons is still overwhelming. Women have been forced into late-term abortions for violating the policy, baby girls are still abandoned or murdered, and there is a severe gender imbalance which has had catastrophic consequences for the country. One woman spoke to the filmmakers about being forced into an abortion after she got pregnant with her second child.

“She had a baby in her body for five months,” a translator said. “But then the police found this lady, took this lady to the hospital to take the baby out. They put medicine inside her to make the baby die.” After the abortion was completed, doctors forcibly sterilized her. Other women, filmmakers point out, are imprisoned until they submit to abortions, or are sterilized without their knowledge or consent while undergoing other medical procedures. Perhaps the most horrifying allegation is that infants were killed after being born in the hospital.

READ: AWFUL: Uighur Muslims endure forced labor inside China’s massive concentration camps

While infanticide happens, most baby girls are simply abandoned. “Some of them maybe die of hunger,” the anonymous woman explained. “Some of them may be picked up by the gangs to become beggars in the street. And some of them maybe lucky to be sent to the orphanage.” While an estimated 15 million girls are missing due to the One-Child policy — aborted after an ultrasound scan showing the baby’s gender — there are no numbers indicating how many baby girls were abandoned.

“My hometown is a small village, but even there, in one month there are more than six or seven children abandoned in the streets,” the anonymous woman continued. “All girls, of course.”

But Blewett noted that there were far fewer babies in the orphanages than had been abandoned. “In my experience, [there are] two possibilities,” an aid worker told them. “One is they pass away because of illness. Or another possibility is they got adopted, but I would say this is a small number. Usually, if they are gone, I would feel very sad to ask, because I’m afraid to know the answer. And they would say, ‘They’re just gone.’ I would say, ‘What do you mean, gone?’ And they say, ‘They died.'”

In one orphanage, one in five newborns died.

Today, parents are still required to obtain birth permits in order to have children, and millions upon millions of girls are missing, having been aborted and killed. This gender disparity has had devastating consequences; China has the highest suicide rate of women in the world. Men find it difficult to marry, leading to epidemics of loneliness and depression, as well as widespread human trafficking. Women and girls are commonly abducted, trafficked, raped, and forced to bear children.

The resurgence of this documentary will hopefully bring more attention to the human rights abuses in China, which are some of the worst in our time.

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