‘Where did all the girl babies go?’ Gita Aravamudan writes on India and China’s history of disappearing daughters.

Indias history with female infanticide and Chinas one-child policy share a tragic truthPTI Representational image
news Female foeticide Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - 12:48

One Child Nation by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang is a chilling and disturbing documentary on the disastrous consequences of China’s strictly enforced one-child policy.

“When my mother was born her parents named her Zaodi, which means ‘Bring me a younger brother soon’,” says Nanfu Wang.  That was back then when China had no family planning rules.  Like in many other Asian countries, including India, it was only aspirational for parents to want more sons.

China’s one-child policy was imposed in the 1970s.  And it was immediately executed with an almost demonic fervor and thoroughness.  Having more than one child became punishable by law. Forced sterilizations and abortions were the norm. The impact it had on families in China was devastating. 

It was also around 1970 that the concept of sex-selective abortion was introduced in India.  It was touted, then, as a great family planning tool. Clinics encouraged parents to “get rid of unwanted daughters” and focus on having only sons. Fortunately, India did not go down the same brutal path as China.  We took the legal route.  Meanwhile, in pockets of rural India female infants were being killed by their own families in a gruesome manner till the mid-1990s.

In China, families were desperate to ensure that the one child they were legally allowed to have should be a boy.  And they got rid of their unwanted infant daughters in most cruel ways.  By the time the time the rule was amended to a “two-child policy” in 2015, irreparable damage had been done. It was almost as if girls had been purged from the population in those 35 years.

How did all those girl babies disappear?  Where did they go?  This is what the documentary traces with an unwavering eye. It is all the more chilling because the US-based filmmaker grew up in the same community and the people she speaks to are all either her relatives or people she knows.

“We couldn’t abandon her in broad daylight,” Zaodi, Nanfu’s mother, says about her own brother’s daughter who was born 28 years ago at the peak of the one child rule.  “So, we climbed over the mountains while it was still dark.  We put 20 dollars in her clothing and left her on the meat counter in the market.  For two days and nights she was there.  No one wanted her.  Her face was covered with mosquito bites. Then she died.  And we buried her.”

Shihua Wong, the father of the baby who was abandoned, tells his niece Nanfu he cried non-stop after this incident.  But he says he had no choice. His mother threatened to strangle the baby and kill herself if he didn’t get rid of her.   He thought by abandoning her he was giving her a chance to live.  “But she died anyway,” he says stoically now, though his eyes are still full of sorrow.

A hunger for sons

I had to press the pause button at that point. The memories which came flooding back to me were oppressive and distressing.  I remembered the first time I interviewed mothers who had killed their infant daughters in similar gruesome ways because their families didn’t want girls.  That was in 1992 in Usilampatti in Tamil Nadu.  Some cried as they recounted how the infant struggled in its death throes after being fed poison. Others refused to dig out those memories. One woman wept inconsolably because she was nine months pregnant and knew if she had a daughter the infant would be killed. The refrain which ran through all their stories was “I had no choice”.

In rural China, it was the strictly enforced one-child policy which made the Chinese kill or abandon their infant girls because they wanted that one son. In pockets of rural India, it was the same hunger for sons combined with poverty and inability to sustain large families which spelt doom for the baby girls. And on a larger national scale the same hunger for sons made educated families in India go in for illegal sex detection scans to enable them to abort their unborn female fetuses. The end result was the same. A largescale elimination of girls which ended in a skewed sex ratio. In China, the problem has already reached alarming levels already. India is getting there.

An aunt of Nanfu Wang tells her she couldn’t bring herself to abandon her baby daughter because she had actually seen abandoned babies in the market and on roadsides dying of sunburn or getting covered by maggots.  So instead, she decided to give her baby to a ‘match maker’, a euphemistic term for child trafficker.

Match makers picked up unwanted or abandoned babies and sold them to orphanages who in turn sold them abroad for adoption. Nanfu’s aunt says she wasn’t thinking of the future or of what sort of life her daughter would have. She just wanted her to live.

Nanfu found that the number of abandoned babies had given a new moneymaking opportunity for the match makers.  She tracks down an ex-trafficker Yuenen Duang in Shenzhen.  He tells her he and his family sent at least 10,000 babies to orphanages for adoption.  10,000 all from one province!  And he tells her his was not even the largest network of traffickers. Imagine the scale of abandonment and trafficking.


 In 1992, China began an international adoption programme and that’s when the orphanages started buying babies from the collectors. The demand grew so fast that Duang and his family started recruiting help to pick up babies.  Trash collectors, rickshaw pullers, bus drivers.  They would pick up babies from wherever they found them: trash heaps, behind bushes on the roadside, on market counters in toilets.  Nanfu finds lists and lists of babies who were sold for international adoption. Babies who had living parents in China but were passed off as orphans.  There were, now, literally thousands of young Chinese girls growing up all over the world who would never ever know about their families.

I paused again, remembering the abandoned infant girls of Usilampatti who were picked up by nurses, midwives and relatives and sold to orphanages or to people who wanted babies. They were taken from hospitals, from homes, from midwives who had been asked to kill them. They too would never know they still had birth families. I remembered visiting the cradle baby outfit set up by Jayalalitha and wondering what would happen to the cute babies lying there in cradles. At least they were alive I thought.  I also remembered a distraught pregnant woman telling me she would never “give the baby to a government home” because who knew what would happen to her ten years down the line.  “I would rather send her to god,” she said.  I remembered the large group of teenage girls found in a dingy missionary-run hostel in Trichy recently.  Girls from Usilampatti who had been discarded by their parents as infants and who had been “rescued” by the missionary more than 15 years ago only to be kept confined in that hostel and used for proselytizing and working on his farms.

Death by midwives

Earlier on in the documentary, Nanfu asks an 84-year-old retired midwife Huaru Yuan, how many babies she has delivered throughout her career.  The midwife answers “I don’t know how many I delivered. But I know I’ve done about 50,000 to 60,000 sterilizations and abortions.  I counted this out of guilt. Because I aborted and killed so many babies. Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it.  But I didn’t have a choice. It was my government’s policy.”

One of my own most unforgettable experiences was talking to Kanchamma, a sixty-year-old midwife in Usilampatti who had brought hundreds of babies to life and sent several more of them back to their maker.  Twenty-five years ago, in the privacy of a dark room inside her hut she whispered to me her horrible secrets with graphic gestures sometimes even enacting the gruesome scenes that had taken place.  It was eerie how she could talk so calmly and with flailing hands imitating the death throes of the infant girl struggling under a sari in which she was covered.

And why then didn’t she stop the killings? “Who am I?” she asked sadly. “It was their child and their wish. They paid me more to do that then to deliver the child.  It was my livelihood.” She had kept her own four daughters unharmed. In a way, she too had no choice.

So, who finally is responsible for our daughters disappearing? All-encompassing misogyny? Draconian governments? Societies which place a premium on sons? Doctors who perform sex-selective abortions? The technology which enables it? Midwives like Huaru Yuan and Kanchamma? Families who kill their girl children?

Gita Aravamudan is a journalist and the author of ‘Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide’

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