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GIRL TROUBLE: A family from rural China featured in the film. After having two girls, they decided to get pregnant again in the hopes of having a son.
Shadowline Films, LLC
GIRL TROUBLE: A family from rural China featured in the film. After having two girls, they decided to get pregnant again in the hopes of having a son.

Millions missing

Lifestyle | Documentary exposes crisis that is depriving life to countless baby girls

Issue: "No pray zone?," July 13, 2013

A smiling Indian woman stands in a field and explains, without emotion, that she strangled eight of her own newborn daughters because they were girls: “Women have the power to give life and the power to take it away.” 

The scene is a chilling start to the documentary It’s a Girl, which explores gendercide, the killing of females in the womb and after birth. The film’s director, Evan Grae Davis, set out to make a movie about the cultural roots of sex trafficking and the exploitation of women. But when he heard the Indian woman’s story, he changed directions, deciding to scrap his earlier idea and focus solely on gendercide. 

The film focuses on India and China, where cultural preferences combined with societal practices—the dowry system in India and one-child policy in China—have led to widespread gendercide. The UN estimates that up to 200 million girls are missing today, and a majority of them live in those two countries. 

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India’s dowry system requires families to give away money, land, and resources to marry off their daughters. Married daughters become part of their husbands’ families. Rita Banerji, the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, explains why the dowry system endangers girl babies: “It is not based on economic necessity … every son is one way of getting money in, and every daughter less is less outflow of money from a family.”

When an expectant mother has an ultrasound and discovers her baby is a girl, she faces pressure to abort from both her husband and mother-in-law. Davis says he expected to find gendercide a problem of rural poverty, but he found “the most skewed sex ratio was in upper-class neighborhoods because of the availability of ultrasounds. They could eliminate girls much easier.”

In 1994, the Indian government banned the use of ultrasounds to determine a baby’s sex, but authorities do not enforce the ban, and many doctors accept bribes to perform them.

When Davis presented the topic at a recent TED conference in Mumbai, he thought he might be perceived as a white American man talking about Indian cultural issues. But many people in the audience told Davis they knew the practice occurred but not as often as the documentary revealed.

A group of Chinese foreign exchange students in the United States had a more mixed response to the film. Some said they had heard stories of forced abortions in their cities. Others claimed the documentary exaggerated the problem.  

In China, men traditionally inherit the family name, wealth, and land. The government-enforced one-child policy causes parents to abort or abandon baby daughters so they can have a son to take care of them in old age. 

Officials routinely raid homes to find whether women are illegally bearing second children. One woman said she went into hiding once she was pregnant with her third child—she was able legally to have two children because she lived in a rural area and her first child was a daughter. She and her husband moved to another city, leaving their three girls with different family members to avoid being caught. They only see their children a few times a year, and hope to make enough money to move back to be with them.

The one-child policy has resulted in a serious gender imbalance, with 37 million more men than women. The lack of women has resulted in sex trafficking, child brides, and prostitution. Parents seeking a bride for their sons have kidnapped about 70,000 girls.

Most of the Chinese people Davis interviewed oppose the one-child policy: “They’re all victims of it. I don’t think anyone would say it’s OK with them to have the government tell them when they can bear a child and how many children.” But speaking out means arrest or harassment for them and their families. 

In America, groups all over the country have screened It’s a Girl, including a number of feminist and pro-abortion groups. But a Slate article claims that the groups are being tricked by a Christian pro-life director—as Davis had previously worked for Harvest Media Ministry making videos for churches. The writer claims the film’s focus on sex-selected abortion could be misused to restrict abortion in general, and that “some suggest that the low price and widespread availability of [sex-selected abortion in India] may actually have reduced the rate of infanticide, although the movie does not mention this.” 

But the film and its message are reaching wide: In April the Coalition Against Gendercide hosted a screening of the film to a bipartisan group of congressmen, NGO leaders, and media. 

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