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It’s a girl: The three deadliest words in the world

An estimated 200 million girls are missing. How can the world community stand by and allow gendercide to continue? asks the maker of a documentary film on this scandal.
Evan Grae Davis | 30 July 2013
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The United Nations estimates that as many as 200 million girls are missing today, the majority from India and China. What are the cultural patterns and individual stories behind this shocking statistic? Evan Grae Davis, an American who has extensive experience in the developing world, has produced a documentary film that answers this question through the mouths of women immersed in these cultures and activists who are campaigning for them. In this email interview with MercatorNet he explained how he came to make the film and what needs to happen next.

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MercatorNet: This is a very harrowing film. How did you come to make it?

Evan Grae Davis: I have spent the last nearly two decades travelling the world capturing stories of human need for humanitarian aid and development NGO's and non-profits. Throughout this time I witnessed a lot of injustice. I began asking the question, what are the cultural roots and mindsets that allow for human rights violations on the scale seen throughout the world today? I set out to explore this question through a documentary film. I and the team travelled to nine nations capturing stories for this film. One of the nations we visited was India, hoping to understand how the subjugation and devaluation of women could be justified by the deeply established son-preference culture. 

What we discovered while filming in India about the epidemic of missing girls and dramatically skewed sex ratios and related abuse and neglect of girls was a game-changer for us. After hearing the UN statistic of as many as 200 million girls missing in the world today as a result of 'gendercide' we researched the issue in China, as well, and were completely astonished by how few people seemed to be aware of what appeared to be the greatest human rights issue of our time, and certainly the greatest form of violence against women in the world today. There seemed to be very little out there on the topic. It was then that we determined to dedicate the film project to exposing this untold story and educating and mobilizing a movement to end gendercide in India and China.

What practices contributing to gendercide did you look into?

In the film, we explore the fundamental son-preference mindset that underlies gendercide. In cultures like India and China, the preference for sons is driven by centuries-old traditions that say that boys are more valuable than girls. Only sons carry on the family name and inherit wealth or perform the last rites for parents upon their death. Daughters join their husband's family once married and are no longer considered a part of their family of origin.

In India, the preference for sons is further influenced by the dowry system, where families often must pay large sums of money or give gold, land and other family assets to the husband’s family when their daughters marry. The cost of securing husbands for daughters becomes prohibitive, so families avoid having more than one or, at most, two daughters.

In China, the One Child Policy has contributed to the elimination of millions of girls over the past few decades. Sons care for their parents in old age, and daughters leave their family to join their husband's family, as in India. So if a family is only allowed one child, they are determined to identify the sex of each pregnancy and systematically terminate female fetuses until they bear a son.

Perhaps the most shocking testimony in your film comes from an Indian woman who killed eight daughters – and seems matter-of-fact about it. You interviewed this woman personally – did you understand, in the end, how she could do that? What light does her case throw on the whole problem in India?

Finding myself standing at the edge of a field in Southern India, listening to a mother share how she had personally strangled eight of her own newborn daughters in her quest for a son, was by far the most shocking and difficult interview. She shared so matter-of-factly, often smiling or laughing, as she talked about how she couldn't afford to raise daughters and made statements like, "Women have the power to give life and the power to take it away."

Later in the interview, she shared a song about her plight as a woman and the pain of being given in an arranged marriage at a young age. She told us how when she was 15, she was excelling in school and had high hopes for her future, when it was decided that she was to be given as a second wife to her sister's husband because her sister was unable to have children. Her purpose in life was to bear her husband a son.

This was when gendercide took on a whole new meaning for me, because I realized she was simply a product of the culture in which she lives. She was programmed from birth to accept certain traditional views about her value and roles as a woman. These deeply engrained cultural beliefs drive the entire system, and women often find themselves as the perpetrators, visiting the same violence they experienced upon their daughters and daughters-in-law.

Was it difficult to get testimonies from women at the grassroots who confront this problem directly? Who helped you reach them?

As American filmmakers, we couldn’t just show up and ask women to talk about the devaluation of women and killing of girls. So we connected with local, grassroots NGO's and advocates who had established relationships in their communities. They introduced us to women who were willing to share their stories with us. For instance, the Jesus Mercy Home Association took us to a few communities in Tamil Nadu, including the one where the mother who strangled eight daughters lived. And the team at the Centre for Social Research in Delhi took us to visit several of their community outreach programmes in Delhi and Haryana. Women's Rights in China helped is with some of the Chinese stories, along with other organizations there. The film would absolutely not have been possible without the work and support of these grassroots organizations and we are immensely grateful for their years of work in the field that enabled such open communication.

All of these field partners were careful about the privacy and safety of the women they work with, and we had to inquire in each case as to whether they were willing to share their stories or not. To our surprise, in India, many of the women and families were open to sharing their stories without shame or embarrassment. This seemed to indicate to us how deeply engrained some of these cultural beliefs were.

The one-child policy in China makes the situation somewhat different there, but do women buy into it to the same extent? Did you find that people accepted the policy, or not?

The impression I have received from talking to activists and those who are working to end gendercide in China is that the coercive and oppressive nature of the One Child Policy makes it extremely unpopular among Chinese women. However, they have very little choice but to silently endure the government's intrusion into their private lives and have little recourse against the Family Planning officials' dominance of their reproductive rights. Those who voice dissension or refuse to submit to the policy suffer harsh punishment, along with their family members.

India is a democratic and religious country, whereas China, officially, is not. Does India therefore have a better chance of breaking with this horrendous war on girls?

Religion in India impacts gendercide only in as much as some religious communities like Muslims and Christians do not practice female feticide and infanticide on the same level as Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. However, the deeply engrained patriarchal son preference culture permeates India and the devaluation of women remains widespread regardless of religious persuasion.

One would think the democratic nature of India's government would lead to progress in women's empowerment. But despite a significant number of women in upper level government positions as well as one third of local government seats being filled by women, violence against women in India is worse than ever.

Government, whether in India or China, will only be a part of the solution if they have the political will to do so, and this is not the case in either nation at this time. When the Chinese government developed the political will to end foot-binding in China, the practice was effectively eliminated within a generation.

Both nations need government action, but in different ways.  China must end its coercive family planning policy, whereas India’s government must be pressured to enforce its existing laws against dowry, sex selection and infanticide.

You have expressed the hope that your film will help inspire a world movement to end gendercide. What specific goals does this movement need to address?

The first goal of the movement is to raise the level of awareness about gendercide throughout the world. We encourage anyone who desires to see value and dignity restored to girls in India and China to spread the word about the issue and our film with your friends and family, through Facebook and Twitter, and by bringing the film to your community through hosting a screening. You may learn more about how to spread the word or host a screening on our website at www.itsagirlmovie.com

As more people learn about the issue, our hope is to mobilize them to action. There are many ways to get involved, whether by signing our petitions asking world leaders demand an end to gendercide in India and China, or supporting our partners who are working on the ground to save girls and advocate for women's rights in India and China. Again, those interested can find out more on our action page on the website.

To date we have mobilized nearly half a million people to take action. Imagine if we had tens of millions demanding the governments of India and China provide justice and equality to girls and women suffering gendercide, and demanding world leaders require accountability for this massive human rights violation.

In a BBC programme on this issue an Indian speaker pointed out that the West is deeply implicated in gendercide because of its promotion of population control in India and China – and elsewhere – and acceptance of abortion as a method of birth control. Isn’t this a major obstacle to any positive role Western political pressure might play?

It is true that the gender imbalance in India, China and other nations in Asia was fuelled by pressure from Western governments and NGOs for population control, which in many cases exploited existing cultural preference for sons for the “greater good” of population control. Learn more about this in Mara Hvistendahl’s excellent book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.

And although the sex ratios in Western nations are not as extreme as in India or China, gendercide does take place in all countries in the West to a varying degree. In particular, some studies have shown that Asian immigrant communities in the West have similar sex ratios to that of their home nations, indicating that gendercide (and in particular, sex selection) may be happening at a similar rate among immigrant communities. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and most countries in Western Europe prohibit abortion on the basis of a fetus’ gender -- the one notable exception being the United States.

These are all relevant questions that, I am sure, do impact on the positive roles the West can have in bringing pressure to bear towards the goal of ending gendercide.

Evan Grae Davis spent the last nearly two decades travelling the world capturing stories of human need for humanitarian aid and development NGO's and non-profits. He is the director of the film, It’s a girl. For more information visit www.itsagirlmovie.com

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | China, gendercide, India, sex selective abortion
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