Bad News for Girls in Overpopulated India, China

Published on October 8th, 2013

A daughter is a burden on her father’s head.

                                                             – common Hindi saying

The documentary, “It’s a Girl,” starts with what appears to be a nice, bucolic scene in India, but the voiceover quickly sets another tone, as the camera focuses on a woman in a bright red sari. “This Indian woman has killed eight of her baby girls.”

The woman says, “Why keep girls when raising them would be difficult?”

She smiles as she talks about strangling a baby. The narrator says the woman continued getting pregnant in hopes of having a son, but each time gave birth to a daughter.

“Women have the power to give life and to take it away,” the woman also says.

According to the film, this type of shocking story is not unique in the patriarchal countries of India and China. Around the world, the average gender ratio is 105 male babies to 100 female babies. But in certain regions of India and China, as well as other places, that ratio is as high as 140 boys to 100 girls, with indicators that the ratio will continue to trend higher towards male children.

In the world’s two most populated countries, we learn in the film, boys are favored, and daughters are considered “drains on resources.” In India, families are expected to deliver dowries for their daughters. Even though the dowry system was outlawed in India in 1961 and sex selection was banned in 1994, there’s limited law enforcement, and the dowry culture and preference for males prevail.

According to the film, females are aborted, killed right after birth or abandoned, with India and China eliminating more girls every year than are born in the United States. Those that live often become victims of neglect and abuse. The situation is not exclusive to the very poor. Wealthier Indians, according to the film, may choose to abort female embryos.

In modern India and China, 20 to 30 percent of girls are being killed before birth. In India, the mortality rate for girls under age 5 is 75 percent higher than boys. One out of four girls does not make it out of puberty. Those who do survive often have no control over their own lives; more than 100,000 females are murdered every year because they didn’t birth sons or because their new families are unhappy with the dowries.

Says author, activist and founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, Rita Banerji, “It is like the female becomes one of the inadvertent pawns in this resource exchange in a patriarchy, so you can buy her, sell her, keep her or kill her – however you want; it’s like with any resource. That is the complete dehumanization of females.”

“Dowry, infanticide and feticide go hand in hand. The minute dowry enters a community, everyone becomes greedy for dowry. They think this is another way of getting a huge amount of money,” Banerji continues.

The second half of the documentary takes the viewer to China, which has had a one-child policy since 1979. There are exceptions to this, including for rural families, who are allowed a second child if the first child is female. The film presents a rural couple who has two girls. Knowing it was against the law, they chose to become pregnant with a third child, still hoping for a boy. Born in secrecy, the third child also is female. Ultimately the couple flee to avoid punishment from the family planning police and end up as factory workers 1,000 miles away from their children.

The film also profiles an urban couple who has one child and also chooses to become pregnant again. As portrayed in the film, having a second child that’s not permitted by Chinese policy means that child does not have citizenship and all that comes with citizenship. To provide the child citizenship would require an outlay of cash (which this particular couple did not have). Ultimately, the child is born abroad and has a foreign passport.

I didn’t find the China portion of the film as impactful as the first half. Given it seems to be well understood that ramifications may be quite harsh for not following policy, the choices the couples made seemed poor, particularly for the first couple who ended up separated from their children. The second couple’s story made me think “birth tourism,” but gave me a new understanding on probably why so many Chinese opt for that route in the U.S.

As the filmmaker has said, this film raises more questions than it answers. I think likely the Western mind – certainly mine – cannot comprehend cultures that place so little value on the lives of females and seem preoccupied with birthing males. One thing the film does not talk about is that China and India are both overpopulated and how that might contribute to this horrible “gendercide.”

The film’s only mention of why the one-child policy came into existence is a vague “fears of overpopulation.” In reality, it wasn’t fear of overpopulation in China; it was overpopulation in China. Famine resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20 to 45 million Chinese between the late 1950s and early 60s. Prior to the implementation of the policy, the government did encourage birth control and smaller families, but ultimately decided the policy was needed. While many – including the Chinese government – say that a China with 1.4 billion is preferable to a China with 1.8 billion, the filmmaker does not seem to support that view.

That said, turning to such a controlled policy has created unintended, ugly consequences – child trafficking, stolen children (girl shortage has led to taking children as future wives for boys – yes, crazy!) and hundreds of thousands of abandoned female babies.

We can trot out the current thinking among populationists that the answer to reducing population growth is empowering girls and women through education – educating girls delays marriage and creates better mothers when and if they choose to become mothers.

But after watching this film, the cultural challenges seem so extreme and entrenched that simply “educating girls” doesn’t seem like it will be nearly enough to change course.

Listen to the filmmaker at TedX Talks.

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