The woman in this picture has just related to a film crew how she killed her newborn daughter by strangulation. She killed eight of her newborn daughters, in fact, and can lead you to the tree-shaded plot of ground where she has buried all of them. The earth is rich there, rounded and fertile. The mound where the infants lie rises over them in a gentle slope, like the swell of mother-flesh.
This woman is not unusual in her Indian village. She and her neighbors explain through a strange kind of laughter the myriad ways that they have dispatched their female children. One of the most common is to dampen a piece of cloth—large enough to swaddle the child in—then lay the wet fabric over the baby’s face, so that she can’t breathe. Other options are to expose the child to the elements or to place her in a box near the river and walk away.
Not only are these practices common in India, they’re common throughout many countries and across many cultures. It’s estimated that as many as 200 million girls are missing from the world’s population due to the practice of gendercide, the culturally-based killing of a child (overwhelmingly female) on the basis of its sex.
Now, detailed news of this widespread custom comes by way of a chilling new documentary: It’s a Girl, produced and directed by filmmaker Evan Grae Davis.
Davis traveled to India and China, where the practice is prevalent, to document the effect this particular barbarity has had on the culture at large. Interviewing village women, social workers, and activists, he exposes the root causes of the custom: poverty, of course, but also a cultural system that values males over females.
In such societies, boys provide for the family and care for the elderly; girls must be married off by way of an expensive dowry that many parents cannot afford. So the system in turn breeds a culture of death, giving perverse birth to all sorts of attendant crimes.
Infanticide of female children fresh from the womb is but a matter of chronological distinction from the feticide that takes place within it.
Girls conceived in areas with technological advancements are discovered—hunted does not seem too strong a word—by way of portable sonograms, administered at the insistence of mothers, in-laws, and husbands, who demand to know whether the baby is worth keeping, meaning a boy (such practices go on in America too, as The Economist reports). If not, an abortion follows, often disregarding the mother’s wishes.
Further, a woman giving birth to girls risks what is called a dowry death, retribution against her own family for what is seen as the perpetration of fraud upon her husband.
Evil is spawned from this distortion of nature. China, self-depleted of girls, has predictably found a need for them, to provide sexual partners for its sons. As a result, human trafficking is sharply on the rise. Girl children are kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film interviews a mother whose daughter was stolen, one of countless children victimized by the warped idea that a baby must justify her existence.
The economic causes mentioned in the film are undoubtedly major parts of the problem. Many of these people are poverty-stricken, and many are bound within a system that commodifies life to an extreme degree.
The culture plays a role, yes, but only because the culture finds boys more valuable and less costly than girls—bringing things squarely back to the economic.
Unsurprisingly, the perpetrators of these crimes even have their apologists: A girl’s life in these places is cruel and short. Better to end it at the outset (besides, there are too many of their kind in the first place, seems the implication).
But horrible as the film shows such practices to be, is it all that different from any system in which our existence depends upon our worth, and our worth upon our cost? If survival relies upon either how much I can manipulate a person’s value (such as genetic engineering to produce only healthy, blue-eyed, blonde babies with heady IQs and DNA maps that project for standard height, weight, and athletic prowess) or upon how much I can get for a person’s parts (such as organ-farming in a clean, hermetic place, far from view, that violates no one’s delicate sensibilities), then where’s the distinction?
Sometimes that cost is only a matter of inconvenience. There are others who would happily pay the price. But I am told by international adoption agencies that such countries frown upon outsourcing their children. “How does it look,” the nations say, “to be giving them to others?” Better to deal with it all in-house.
It is a damnable lie not to call this business what it is.
These girls are being murdered at every stage of life, and those who survive are being subjected to every form of indignity. However tragic the poverty that motivates such a thing, the fact remains. To deny it, to be too uncomfortable to look at it, to be too embarrassed to see it, is to be complicit in it.
There is no problem so great that this kind of barbarism can be the solution, and the salvation of these lives must become a priority for any people who dare call themselves civilized. Otherwise, as Mother Teresa said, the true poverty becomes our own: that any child must die in order for us to live the lives we wish.