An Indian woman clutches her neck and giggles nervously as she describes how she strangled eight of her newborn daughters to death. “Women have the power to give life and take it away,” she says. According to director Evan Grae Davis’ documentary It’s a Girl, this woman’s story is not unique.
It’s a Girl, filmed in China and India, explores the twisted and tragic world of gendercide — the systematic killing and abandonment of baby girls and the abortion of female fetuses. The United Nations estimates that the number of “missing” girls is around 200 million — more than all deaths in World War I and II combined.
Over the last 16 years Davis has shot documentaries about human rights abuses from Africa to the Amazon. He didn’t initially set out to make a film about gendercide; he and his crew were travelling throughout India looking to shoot a documentary on human trafficking.
“Nothing prepared us for what we discovered,” he says. Davis spent four years uncovering the gruesome stories of women who had murdered their daughters. Some crushed their baby girl’s necks, poisoned their milk or used damp cloths to suffocate them. In a way, all the women inIt’s a Girl believed they were saving their daughters from lives of poverty and violence.
“I came back from India and looked at my wife and 13-year-old daughter and thought ‘what if they lived under the authority of a man at all levels?’” says Davis. “What if they were devalued, abused and neglected?”
Many Indian and Chinese families prefer sons to daughters because sons inherit wealth, work in the field and carry on the family name. This preference has been “deeply ingrained in these cultures for centuries,” says Davis.
While the Indian government outlawed the dowry system more than 50 years ago, many families are still expected to provide gifts and property to their sons-in-law. In the film, a group of women say it’s difficult enough to afford food, let alone a dowry.
However, gendercide is not unique to the poor. When Dr. Mitu Khurana, a pediatrician, learned she was pregnant, her husband and mother-in-law forced her to undergo an ultrasound test to determine the sex of the baby. Like the dowry system, gender tests are illegal in India — this is because of high rates of sex-selection abortions. Once Khurana’s husband learned she was carrying twin girls he and his mother pleaded with her to have an abortion. When Khurana refused, her husband threw her down a flight of stairs and locked her in a room, leaving her bruised and bleeding. She escaped and gave birth to the girls two months prematurely.
Despite tireless efforts by Khurana to bring her husband and the doctor who performed the illegal ultra-sound to justice, no charges were ever laid. “What should I do to save my daughters, where do I go from here?” she asks.
In neighbouring China, couples are subject to what Davis calls “the most violent policy against women” — the country’s one-child restriction. Couples who live in rural parts of the country are allowed another child if their first is a girl. Mothers who violate this policy are subjected to forced abortions or sterilization.
Davis said it was extremely difficult finding women in China to speak on camera. However, he came across a factory worker named Li Fang who was willing to share her story. Chinese police raided Fang’s home after they learned she had become pregnant with a third child. Fang and her husband fled their village and gave birth to their daughter in secret. These “illegal children” are invisible: they can’t go to school, visit a doctor, or legally work.
Davis doesn’t have answers for why, despite some condemnations from the likes of Hillary Clinton, the international community has been largely indifferent to what he calls the war on girls. “People seem to believe the one-child policy will just resolve itself,” he says. Davis has tried screening the film in China, but with no success. However, he says Indian viewers responded quite positively to the film.
At the Toronto screening, two petitions will be circulated through the aisles after the film: one calling China to end its one-child policy and another demanding the Indian government take action against female infanticide, selective abortions and dowry deaths. The petition demanding an end to the one-child policy already has over 100,000 signatures.
“These cultures need to change to allow women around the world to determine their own destinies” says Davis.