Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Film Analysis #2: "No Woman No Cry" & "It's a Girl"

“No Woman No Cry” was a well-done documentary on the dangers of maternity around the world. It’s not just a third-world problem, either; it’s also a needless problem in the U.S., though for very different reasons.

One thing that really struck me from this film is that in Tanzania (and other poor countries in Africa), if you can get to the right healthcare, the care is usually free. In the United States, though healthcare is prolific and readily available to just about everyone, it is far from free.

Watching Janet suffer silently left me in awe. Her lips said she was hurting and that it felt like labour pains, but her face was stoic and calm. If I’d passed her on the dirt road between the hospital and her village I would never have guessed she was about to have her baby and was fighting excruciating pain. Though admittedly the only woman I’ve ever watched give birth in real life is myself (and even then I wasn’t really “watching,” per se), I would guess this is a cultural thing. American women are encouraged to grunt, moan, yell, scream, chant, pant, and make other noises to a) distract themselves from the pain of childbirth and b) relax the muscles that need to relax and allow the other parts of the body to do their thing.

I was also shocked by the stark emptiness of the hospital room Janet was in. They have nothing but a bed and yet this is where she desperately wants to give birth.

The amount of physical touch between nurse and patient was interesting. The nurse rubbed her hand on the woman’s face, touched her shoulder, tousled her hair, nipped her cheek with her finger. It was a very tender and caring scene to me. That would never happen in the U.S. Nurses are to be kind and caring and friendly, but never intimate or assuming a closeness that isn’t there.

In the United States, lack of access to hospitals, clinics, doctors, and medicine is not the problem, nor is poor sanitation, limited technology, or lack of knowledge. 1 in 5 women of reproductive age in America has no insurance. And this is one of the major problems affecting maternal mortality in this country today.

Contrasting what I know from giving birth to two children thus far in my life and what I learned of Tanzanian culture in this film was interesting. I have access to so much that those women do not have. I can walk into any hospital nearby and be given a sterilized, starched bed and access to nearly any machine or technology or drug I could need. It may cost me an arm and a leg, but I have the access.

The women in Tanzania have to walk five miles in the desert sun to get to the nearest clinic—not hospital—and there’s a very low chance there will even be a doctor there. One OB quoted in the film said that at one point he was the only obstetrician for an entire population of several million people.

One thing that fascinated me about the stories of the women in Bangladesh is the intense feeling of shame for a woman if she cannot give birth. Girl or boy is not as important as whether or not the woman can conceive at all.

Also, maternity is a family affair in this country. When the woman (I don’t recall her name) went to get an ultrasound to determine her baby’s gestation status, she didn’t just go alone, with a friend, with her mother, or with her husband. An entire crew of her family (and friends?) went with her. Even the small children came along.

I go to OB appointments alone most of the time, only taking my husband when there’s a significant test being done like the gender ultrasound, or if there’s a concern. This is not a cultural thing but a preference and one based on economic convenience and necessity at that (he works an hourly job and time is money). And I am comfortable with this. Considering the idea of my entire (extended?) family coming with me to an ultrasound is awkward and uncomfortable to me. And that could be caused by both culture and personality.

The doctor also expected her “people” to be able to tell him when her last period was. Likely the only person who can tell my doctor that about me will be my husband.

Interestingly, although I felt the doctor was abrupt, harsh, demanding, demeaning, and rude, I also felt that the health educator (the protagonist, if you will, in this story) was a bit too hard on the woman, as well. “Why did you even try to do it at home? What kind of people are you? How do you think we feel?” It was a complete guilt trip for her to have made the decision she made, which is firmly rooted in a culture in which she was raised deeply entrenched.

The story of the man whose wife died in childbirth was heart wrenching. Imagining my husband left with my daughters and me never holding or knowing my children…and them never knowing me…was a painful vision. And to think that it happened in this country is a bit frightening. It could happen to anyone. It almost happened to my mother when she gave birth to me. That father could have been my father. His son’s story mine. My life could have been very, very different. And medicine has come a long way in 31 years.

One woman interviewed said, “There’s an assumption in third world countries that if we build a clinic, the people will use it.” That’s not necessarily true because from this film I determined that the shame in asking for medical assistance is so great, that many women opt to take their chances alone and at home with inexperienced help than bear the shame of going to the hospital where experts could save their life and the life of their baby. This fact makes me sad, and yet…what can we do?

It’s about education. Education for the medical staff on how to properly handle a childbirth and a newborn. Education for women on pregnancy and childbirth and what a healthcare system can and does do. Education for men and women on the care women need while pregnant and giving birth. And education alone can’t fight the problem; there has to be a shift in culture.

This was also the issue in “It’s a Girl!” that I watched as my second film. This documentary focuses solely on India and China and the extremely high rates of gendercide, feticide, and infanticide due to cultural value systems that are highly skewed in favour of males.

One thing that struck me about the situation in India is that the gender issue is not just about gender; it’s also about class. A poor family cannot afford to feed a large family. So boys are fed well, and the girls are not. If a boy gets sick the family will find a way to get medicine for him. If a girl gets sick and they cannot afford medical care, they will allow her to suffer and even die. This is not necessarily a direct result of gender preference, but it’s a bit of a circular cycle, in which gender preference leads families to take better care of male children, and the higher value placed on male children is evident from the beginning and therefore continues the cycle of devaluing females, causing/reinforcing gender preference.

In addition, if a family is wealthy it expects to receive as dowry expensive cars such as Mercedes and other high-value items. However, this also means that they are expected to pay that in dowry should they have a daughter to wed. Therefore greed plays a major role in gendercide, since families view dowry as an easy way to get even richer—gain property, money, and expensive items. Having only boys means they get more and more and never have to give.

I was absolutely shocked at the ability of the Indian women to explain how they kill their female babies…while smiling. They talk about pouring acid on the baby’s face to suffocate her, strangling her, feeding her poison, putting a wet cloth over her face so she can’t breathe—and through all of this explanation they are smiling as though talking about how they made a beautiful cake for their child’s birthday on Sunday or went for a walk in the park last night with their lover.

They. Are. Murderers.

And they stand there explaining why it was necessary and how they don’t feel any guilt at all.

In China, families are intensely prosecuted by law if they go against the policy stating that city-dwellers have only one child and rural families have no more than two. A spy system is put in place and held there by the government, so you never know who will report you if you are illegally pregnant, which means fines, imprisonment, forced abortion, and/or forced sterilization.

On average, 1,500 abortions are performed every hour in China. Many are forced, even up to the last month of pregnancy.

As a result of this required and strictly enforced policy, gender preference is extremely evident in the
culture. Men now outnumber women in China by 37 million. This means finding a woman to marry is incredibly difficult and has resulted in extreme prostitution markets, child bride kidnappings, and child abductions as men seek to satisfy their physical desires and families seek to find wives for their sons.

We all know about China’s one-child policy, and most western countries believe this to be an abhorrence. However, as one interviewee pointed out in this documentary, “Raising the birth limit to two won’t solve the problem. Women who come from cultures where they are treated as equals to men need to stand up for their sisters because they cannot do it themselves.”

This leads me to question…whose worldview is right? Who’s to say that the western view on equal rights and treatment of men and women is the “right” way to see things? Who decides that killing female children is wrong and valuing both genders equally is right? How can we even approach the issue with such vastly different worldviews and expect to convince anyone of anything that goes against their centuries-old cultural norms? What would our reaction be here in the U.S. if a group of “educators” from India came over and started telling us that placing equal value on male and female children was wrong and desiring only male children was right? Would we listen willingly and nod our heads and consider the arguments and make thoughtful decisions to change our culture? Doubtful.

So how does one solve this? It’s a major problem—admittedly, from my own worldview—and I don’t see how education or argumentation is going to change anything. Culture is difficult to shift—in any direction—specially on major issues such as gendercide and value systems.

Another interviewee said, “When we put up pictures of little girls and say, ‘save the girl child,’ who are we talking to? No one is listening. We need to turn the mirror around and take a good hard look into our own psyche and moral conscience. As a nation (India) we have a need for examination, shame, and change, to confront it within ourselves. Unless we do that, nothing is going to change. There needs to be an assumption of responsibility. This is something we have allowed to go horribly wrong and we’re each responsible for it.”

I think she’s right. It has to come from within, this change. We as Americans can’t do it. The British can’t do it. The Germans can’t do it. The Australians can’t do it. The South Africans can’t do it. Even the Canadians can’t do it. It has to be an internal push for internal change. And it will take an extremely long time. And, unfortunately, a lot more deaths.

Watching these films as a mother was probably a different experience than that of others watching them. The first was simply a treatise on the childbirth experience in general, but the second was more difficult as it dealt with devaluing females. I have two girls. It goes without saying that I value them very much—they are special to me and their father, and we would never ever in a million years wish they were boys instead.

It was very difficult for me as the mother of girls to hear the stories of the girl babies in India being murdered by their own mothers minutes after their birth, simply because they didn’t have a penis.

I cried as I listened to the stories about unwanted daughters in China—the fact that there is a very fast-growing population of illegal children (mostly female) in China who technically—legally—don’t exist. They can’t go to school, receive healthcare, travel by plane, hold a job, get married, or leave the country. Many of them are abandoned or neglected/abused simply because they are girls and therefore a burden on their parents.

I sobbed as the sorrowful mother shared her story about having to leave her three daughters with different family members while she and her husband fled to a location 1,000 miles away in order to avoid penalties from the government for having more than their allotted number of children. They try to visit their daughters once a year. If they have enough money saved. “I miss my children very much,” said the mother. The oldest daughter came on the screen and said, “I want my mother to come home. I don’t want her to work anymore. I miss her.” It broke my heart.

My heart skipped a beat when I learned that women in China not only have to have a pregnancy permit to conceive, but they also must have a birth permit to actually give birth to the child.

A pregnancy permit does not guarantee a birth permit.

Just let that sink in.

Needless to say these films were very enlightening and I’m glad I watched them, though parts of them were painful to see. I am very fortunate to live in a country where I am equally valued (though even that, in our western culture, is debatable on a very different level), where I can get pregnant when and how I so choose, and can give birth to as many babies as I wish, without interference from the government.

I felt they were both well-done though the first (“No Woman No Cry”) was very obviously done by someone with a bit less experience, or at least an extremely different style than the maker of the second (“It’s a Girl!”). They are both high quality and very informative, with contemporary information and touching stories.

Now to find answers to my questions and figure out whether or not documentaries like these can and do make any difference in the world.


  1. As a mother yourself, I see how these two movies could have affected you so deeply, especially as a mother of girls. One thing that I want to mention about you said is who decides what's right, and who are we to impose our cultural ideas on others. I agree to an extent - I don't think we should ever impose our cultural ideas of what is right and wrong on other people. But at the same time, when it is obvious that what a culture encourages people to do has certain obvious negative effects, then it should be pointed out. Gendercide has obvious negative effects on both India and China. China has 37 million more men than women - this statistic is so shocking to me, and the effects of the one child policy I think will become more obvious in the coming years. The rate of kidnapping and trafficking will only go up. And I don't think anyone from any culture can dispute the horror that is killing babies. Like I stated in class, it's one thing to have an abortion, it's another matter completely when you kill a live baby that you can see, and touch, and hear crying.

    But like you also rightly stated, these issues are deeply cultural and so solving them will take years. To think there are laws against them, and yet they are still so prevalent is a testament to the power of culture. I always enjoy reading your perspectives of the issues we discuss.
    Ave Altius

  2. Culture plays an important role in these issues. If I could change the mindset of the people in these culture I would but I can't and I don't know if that'd be fair. The value of life is interpreted in a variety of ways depending on what culture you're coming from. I wish that women and men are valued equally in these countries. It makes me wonder what can be done to change these prevailing ideas. Education? Perhaps.