It begins with an Indian woman standing in a homemade graveyard, telling her story. Eight times, she got pregnant, hoping for a son. Eight times, a daughter was born. Eight times, she strangled her daughter and buried her. She laughs nervously as she speaks. She doesn’t seem to feel a terrible sadness, and why should she? “Women have the power to give life,” she explains, “and the power to take it away.”
The documentary film It’s A Girl thrusts the viewer into the real war on women with a glimpse inside two patriarchal societies. Despite the words of the woman who killed her eight newborn daughters, the cause of widespread gendercide in China and India is not the power of women. It is its opposite – the devaluing of women at every age – that has led to abortion of female children at a rate of up to 30% throughout China and India, along with the rampant abuse, neglect, and murder of girls and young women.
In India, daughters are liability, sons an asset – quite literally. When a daughter reaches marrying age, an outrageously expensive dowry must be paid to her husband’s family. This is why, as Rita Banerji of 50 Million Missing explains, the dowry system, which has created the anti-female society that results in female feticide, infanticide, neglect, abuse, and death, is not based on actual need; rather, it is “greed-based.”
No matter how rich or poor you are, sons are your ticket to huge earnings by dowry. Daughters are exactly the opposite. Also, since daughters become members of their husbands’ families at marriage, having a son guarantees you a family to take care of you in your old age. In other words, when you raise daughters, you raise them for someone else’s family.
Being female in India is dangerous from conception through adulthood. If you’re not aborted, if you’re not killed as an infant, if you’re not given less food or medicine or care than boys and die in early childhood, if you somehow you make it to marriage, it is essential to make sure your dowry is adequate. The dowry system also results in “dowry death,” in which a man kills his wife because he feels her dowry was not sufficient. These types of murders are often ignored by Indian courts.
Then, once you’re pregnant, pray it is a boy, because even when the law on paper protects women in India, it’s not enforced, as in the case of sex-determination ultrasounds. They’re technically illegal, but no one cares. A great deal of money can be earned by doctors under the table for breaking this law, often at the request of husbands and their families who want to know the gender of a baby so it can be aborted if it is female – by medical procedure, or by pushing your wife down the stairs.
The situation in China is just as grim. In rural areas, couples are allowed two children if the first is a girl, so they have a chance for a boy. Forced abortions and sterilizations are shockingly common.
In something out of an Orwellian nightmare, Family Planning Police are informed by village spies, who are rewarded for informing on their neighbors. These police drag women out of their house for abortions. Families are fined exorbitant, impossible fees for violating the policies. In the film, one couple tell their heartbreaking story of having to split up their three daughters into different homes, then move away to avoid arrest, leaving their daughters behind.
In urban areas, the One-Child Policy is enforced more strictly, although some couples are allowed exemptions. Couples who can afford it leave the country to have their children, to avoid forced abortion or outrageous fines. However, if they violate the policy and have “illegal” children, these children become un-people. They are denied citizenship. They cannot get a passport or fly on a plane. They will not have access to health care, education, or employment. As far as the government is concerned, they have no right to exist.
Mark Shan of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers provides deeply disturbing numbers for abortion in China: 13 million a year. Thirty-five thousand a day. Fifteen hundred an hour. Many of them are forced abortions – up to the ninth month.
Ironically, the kidnapping and trafficking of child brides is also common in China and India. Couples don’t want daughters, but they want daughters-in-law, so even infants and toddlers are sometimes stolen from their parents and raised as future brides for the kidnappers’ sons, or sold to other couples. Sex-trafficking and prostitution are also prevalent.
The problem in China isn’t that not enough children are allowed to Chinese couples. The problem is that the government has any say in the number of children a couple has, or any authority to enforce that number by aborting children, sterilizing women, harrassing and fining couples, and declaring illegal children non-citizens. The government has too much power, but also – just like in India – the culture places little value on women and girls.
“The right to life defines us as human,” says Banerji. “The fact that we have to justify why women shouldn’t be killed – that is a dehumanizing argument in itself.”
As Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, explains, China has the highest female suicide rate in the world – 500 women per day. Those are World Health Organization numbers. “Could this epidemic of female suicide in China be related to forced abortion, forced sterilization, and female infanticide?” asks Littlejohn. She goes on to answer her own question: “How does a woman feel about herself as a woman if she has killed her daughter just because she’s a girl? How does that make her feel about herself? How does that make her feel about her own right to live, to draw breath on this earth?”
So what is to be done? The answer is complicated, and the problem will not be fixed overnight. More importantly, the women and female children of China and India will need our help.
“Son preference comes from cultures that devalue women,” Littlejohn says. “They feel that women are not good as men. Women who have been beaten down by these cultures – these cultures that have been devaluing women for thousands of years – can’t always stand up for themselves. And that’s why women who come from cultures that value women, where women are equal, we need to stand up for our sisters because they can’t stand up for themselves.”
It’s A Girl is expertly crafted and mesmerizing, taking you inside these cultures and allowing you to meet not only the experts who sift through the repulsive data of gendercide to inform the rest of us, but also the women and children who have been affected by son-preference cultures: victims, perpetrators, survivors, freedom-fighters.
It’s A Girl also throws into sharp relief the pettiness of women in the United States who call a lack of 100% free contraception a “war on women,” and who support organizations like Planned Parenthood which do nothing to stop sex-selection abortion.
There is much work to be done to end the devaluing of women in China, in India, and across the globe. To find out where you can view It’s A Girl and get involved to end gendercide, visit ItsAGirlMovie.com. Also, stay tuned to Live Action News for my upcoming interview with Reggie Littlejohn and learn more about Women’s Rights Without Frontiers and the Save A Girl campaign.