Written by Fiona Basile
This is the fifth in a series of reports by photo-journalist, and Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga member, Fiona Basile who attended the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations in New York in March. The theme of the session was: ‘The elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls’.
Reggie Littlejohn is a woman on a mission. As founder of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers (WRWF), the San Francisco-based attorney has made it her life’s work to put an end to what she calls ‘the war against women and girls in China,’ where violence in the forms of forced abortion and forced sterilisation, gendercide and sexual slavery is an horrific reality.
I first met Reggie at one of the Commission’s side events, where the must see documentary It’s A Girl, was being screened. This harrowing film brought me to tears and clearly demonstrated the potentially deadly significance of three words: ‘it’s a girl’. In China, India and many other parts of the world, babies are killed, aborted and abandoned simply because they’re a girl. According to the documentary, the United Nations estimates as many as 200 million girls are missing in the world today due to gendercide.
Reggie, who appears in the documentary as an international expert on forced abortion under China’s One Child Policy, said: ‘It is terrifying for people to understand that the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party extends from Beijing to every single womb in China, declaring life or death.’
‘While most people know that the one child policy exists, what people don’t realise is that it is violently enforced through forced abortion, forced sterilisation, forced contraception and infanticide,’ she said. ‘We’re not talking about a recommendation, or an education program by the government. We’re talking about severe coercion by the government where women are dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night, strapped onto tables, forcibly aborting their child up to the ninth month of pregnancy, and sometimes the women themselves die along with their full term babies. This is the height of violence against women. And it is the biggest women’s rights issue in the world, because of the sheer numbers.
‘The Chinese Communist Party boasts that it has prevented 400 million lives through the one child policy—many of those lives being prevented through forced abortion—and this is the party’s official number set forth at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009 where the government boasted this was their contribution in the fight against global warming.’
Reggie first became aware of the horrific violence occurring against women and girls in China in the 1990s when the case of a young woman seeking political asylum crossed her computer screen. The woman had been forcibly sterilised. ‘She was the sweetest woman, maybe five feet tall, weighed about 90 pounds—she was tiny—and 10 or 11 family planning officials went into her house, literally picked her up and dragged her out screaming and crying, strapped her down to a table, she was cut into, and they tied her tubes with no anaesthesia. It’s just appalling and this is happening all the time. She said the pain was “unimaginable” and she, like many women in China, got a massive infection, she had chronic back pain, abdominal pains and migraines from the time of the forced sterilisation to the time I represented her as a lawyer—it basically ruined her health. And this story is not uncommon.’
China’s one child policy came into effect in 1979 in an attempt to curb the population explosion, which had occurred under the Mao era, during the 1950s to 1970s. Mao had encouraged women to have as many babies as possible, as ‘people were the strength of China’. At its peak, the birth rate was about six babies per woman. ‘Of course they had a population explosion,’ said Reggie, ‘which later led to the institution of this draconian one child policy, but now the fertility rate is well below replacement level. So now China has a population problem not due to a high birth rate, but because there are too few young people to sustain the older population, and people are living longer. There is no longer any need for this policy to still be in place for population control reasons—it’s now simply state-enforced violence and terror.’
A further ramification of China’s one child policy is gendercide, a term first coined by American feminist Mary Anne Warren in her 1985 book Gendercide: the Implications of Sex Selection, meaning the methodical and mass killing of a specific sex, in this case, girls.
According to Reggie: ‘Gendercide is now prevalent because if people have this coercive low birth limit, they want to make sure that their only child is a boy. Boys are seen to be more valuable than girls, and this follows in the case of rural families in China, where they’re allowed to have two children. If the family has had a girl first, the preference is for a boy the second time round.’
Gendercide of baby girls has in turn led to extremely skewed gender ratios. According to an analysis of Chinese household data carried out in late 2005 and reported in the British Medical Journal, the normal sex ratio is between 103-107 boys born to every 100 girls. Fourteen Chinese provinces, mostly in the east and south, have sex ratios of 120 boy-births and above, and three have unprecedented levels of more than 130 boys born per 100 female births. In China’s most populous province, Guandong, the ratio for first borns is 108 boys to 100 girls. However, looking at the second child statistics, the ratio leaps to 146 boys for every 100 girls.
Reggie said that there is an estimated 37 million more men living in China today which has in turn lead to human trafficking and sexual slavery not only within China but across international borders. ‘Women and girls are being trafficked across from North Korea, Burma, Thailand, Mongolia and other countries, into China because there are simply not enough women.’
China has the highest suicide rate of any country in the world. It’s the only country in the world where more women than men commit suicide. According to the US State Department China 2012 Human Rights Report, approximately 590 women a day kill themselves in China. Reggie believes many women who have suffered under the government’s brutal enforcement of the one-child policy—having aborted or killed their baby girls by force—would rather die themselves.
Through WRWF, Reggie has been at the forefront of gathering and documenting the evidence of violence inflicted on women and girls as a result of China’s one child policy and the unintended consequences. She has testified six times at the United States Congress and has presented three times at the European Parliament, as well as at British, Irish and Canadian Parliaments. She has also spoken with officials from the White House, United Stated Department of State, and the Vatican. She will continue to speak and act in order to put an end to the violence.
Most recently Reggie welcomed 10-year-old Zhang Anni, daughter of imprisoned Chinese dissident and nuclear physicist, Zhang Lin, into her home. With her father in prison—most recently for having published online articles critical of the regime—Zhang Anni was in danger of being sent to an orphanage. She had also been kidnapped and detained for 20 hours without food and water, and had been banned from attending school. Reggie and her husband, with the assistance of many people in the United States and China, were able successfully to advocate for Anni to come to the United States, and Anni is now staying with them. ‘It’s a miracle that she’s here,’ Reggie reported.
Reggie knows this is a ‘David versus Goliath situation’, but is determined to continue the fight. ‘I am going toe to toe with arguably the bloodiest regime in the history of the world,’ she said. ‘But I feel the sacrifice I’ve made is really minor compared to the sacrifice made by those fighting from inside China.
‘I live in the United States, where I have freedom of speech, and since I know what’s going on, I have a moral obligation to speak out on this issue, because the people who live in China can’t. And when I think about the fact that women are dying, that girls are being targeted for death, that this is the biggest women’s rights violation in the world today – indeed, in the history of the world, because of the numbers involved, I decided that somebody had to take a stand. The violence has to stop.’
Gendercide is not only an issue for China and India—this very issue is now being debated in Western countries such as Britain and Australia where cases of sex-selective abortion have come to the fore.
In an article from The Telegraph (7 October 2013), Holly Watt and Claire Newell report that ‘doctors have been informed that they can carry out sex-selective abortions in certain circumstances’. This follows a controversial decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute two doctors who agreed to arrange illegal abortions based on the sex of an unborn baby.
And in Victoria, Australia, Dr Mark Hobart risks being deregistered because he allegedly refused a referral for an Indian couple who wanted to abort a healthy unborn baby girl at 19 weeks, simply because they wanted a boy. In an article by Miranda Devine in The Herald Sun (5 October 2013), she reported that ‘Dr Hobart’s patient and her husband requested a sex-selection abortion after an ultrasound determined their fetus was female’. ‘They only wanted a boy, the husband told Dr Hobart, who, as a practising Catholic, had a conscientious objection to providing the abortion. Under Victorian law, he was obliged to refer the patient to a doctor he knew would terminate the pregnancy.’
Dr Hobart has been under investigation by the Medical Board of Victoria for five months, accused of having committed an offence under the state's controversial Abortion Law Reform Act of 2008.
For more information, see:
People can purchase a license to show the documentary It’s a Girl in their local parishes, schools or communities to help raise awareness of the issue of violence against girls and women and gendercide. Details: www.itsagirlmovie.com
Reggie Littlejohn’s WRWF has a network of people on the ground in China who are helping women at risk of facing forced abortions, to escape, and to provide monetary support to women who would otherwise abort their baby girls due to poverty or pressure. For more information, or to support its Save a Girl campaign, see www.womensrightswithoutfrontiers.org
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Kairos Catholic Journal.