"This Indian woman has killed eight of her baby girls." The opening line of the documentary It's A Girl hits me like a physical blow. I already know a bit about gendercide: the deliberate, systematic elimination of female children through foeticide (selective abortion) and infanticide (killing newborns). But this important documentary, which screens Tuesday night on Maori Television, strips away my preconceptions and opens my eyes to the magnitude, causes and impact of this terrible phenomenon.
Globally, around 200 million girls and women are currently "missing" due to gendercide.
It's a Girl zooms in on the worst offenders, India and China. In China, there are 37 million more men than women, and 1500 abortions an hour. In India, one in four girls conceived dies before puberty, and there are seven million more boys than girls under age seven.
Don't worry: we don't see anything disturbing happen. Shadowline Films, a socially conscious not-for-profit, doesn't sanitise or sensationalise, nor does it need to. Telling it straight is powerful enough. A carefully curated mix of women's stories, expert interviews, scenes of daily life and simple artist sketches tell the visual story well.
Separating each chapter are proverbs such as "A daughter is a thief" and "Let a female child be born somewhere else. Here let a son be born."
The central problem is that these two patriarchal societies have a son "preference", though that's too tame a word. Sons are responsible for carrying on the family property and name, and supporting their parents in old age. Daughters are considered financial drains, particularly in India where even poor parents must pay large dowries, and where women are considered to switch families at marriage. Poverty plays its part. "If the baby was still alive she would have suffered very much," says an Indian woman who killed her baby.
In China, under the one-child policy, many couples who conceive a daughter but want a son commit foeticide or infanticide. If they keep their daughter and conceive again, a paid-informant system and family-planning police mean forced abortions (even near full-term), forced sterilisations, and financially crippling ongoing fines. Some go into hiding with non-citizen children who can't go to school, get healthcare, have a job or leave the country.
Women with pain etched on their face share heartbreaking stories, often at great personal risk. Without spelling it out, the doco shows why women like these aren't to blame.
They're the victims of a sick society, extreme poverty, lack of choices, and often abusive husbands and in-laws.
In India, 100,000 women are murdered each year for not producing sons, and many more are blamed, abused, divorced, and socially ostracised. We meet an Indian couple whose daughter was killed by her husband and who now worry about their granddaughter's safety. Daughters who survive initially are commonly abused, neglected, not treated for illness; this is gendercide too.
The first ripple effect is millions of bachelors, which has led to a rise in sex trafficking and the kidnapping of girls by families to later marry their sons. No doubt gendercide is a factor in the suicides of 500 Chinese women per day.
Commendably, It's a Girl doesn't shy away from the difficult question of if, and how, things will change. In China, the one-child policy needs to be reversed. In India, laws against gendercide need to be enforced. But most of all, attitudes towards sons and daughters need to change. Various organisations like the 50 Million Missing Campaign, the Campaign Against the Pre-Birth Elimination of Females, and Women's Rights without Frontiers are trying to effect change, and trying us to get involved. The challenge is not to shield our eyes nor despairingly shrug our shoulders. As Shadowline's tagline goes, "to know is not enough".
It's A Girl screens Tuesday, 8.30pm, on Maori Television.