I was recently honored to talk at TEDxGrandRapids to an amazing audience of forward-thinking and socially conscious West Michiganians. It was an incredible experience, taking the stage with twelve other innovative and creative speakers; sharing ideas and hearing the ongoing conversations on the breaks and after the event.
The talk will be available on video soon, but many have been asking about what I covered in my talk, so I am sharing the transcription here, then will post the video once available. As always, I value your ideas and feedback, so please feel free to respond in the comments to the ideas I shared about how we can all become culture-changers.
Here is my talk:
In India, China and many other parts of the world today, girls are killed, aborted and abandoned simply because they are girls. This female genocide, or as many are calling it, gendercide, has resulted in the elimination of as many as 200 million women from the world’s population. It’s a staggering statistic! Just to put it in perspective, more girls have been killed over the last 50 years– simply because they are girls– than all of the deaths of World War l, World War ll and all the major battles of the 20th century combined. More girls have been eliminated through gendercide in the last decade than the number of people killed in all of the major genocidal events of the 20th century combined.
Making It’s a Girl is a journey that has led to more questions than answers for me.
This was my first feature length documentary film. I have spent the last nearly two decades traveling the world capturing stories of human need for humanitarian aid and development NGO’s and non-profits; helping them to mobilize support for their work.
During these years, I have seen a lot of injustice, but nothing quite prepared me for standing on the edge of a field in Southern India, looking at a row of graves and listening to a mother casually talk about strangling eight of her own newborn baby girls in her quest for a son.
How can a mother perpetrate such violence against her own daughters? How can women who have endured subjugation and devaluation on the level of the women of India, participate in the very same system by killing their own daughters?
I gained a little perspective on this question when, later in the day that we filmed this Indian woman, she sang a song for us. It was a song about the plight of a woman given in marriage at a very young age. It was her story.
You see, this woman, when she was 15, was excelling in school and had high hopes for her future. But it was determined that she would be given as a second wife to her sister’s husband, because her sister could not bear children. It was to be her primary purpose in life to bear her husband a son. It was then that I realized that this woman that stood before me was simply a product of the culture in which she lives.
This is a culture that is driven by centuries old traditions that say boys are more valuable than girls. This is a culture in which millions of girls every year are selectively aborted simply because they are girls. This is a culture in which the mortality rate of girls under the age of five is 75% higher than that of boys and one out of four girls don’t live past puberty. Many of those fortunate enough to survive childhood, like the woman in our story, have no control of their own destiny. Her father can give her away in marriage at any age– even as young as 6 or 8 years old. Once her guardianship is passed on from her father to her husband, he may rape her, beat her, sell her or even kill her if he desires, with no real danger of consequences.
As I work to educate and mobilize a movement to end gendercide in India and China through the It’s a girl campaign, the greatest question I face is, how does change even begin when it comes to such deeply engrained cultural beliefs about the value and roles of women?
And may I interject here, that my passion and desire as a filmmaker, and my goal when making It’s a Girl, was to give voice through the film to Indian and Chinese women and activists to address the need for change in their own culture. And when you see the film, you will see their stories and hear their pleas and demands for change. I just hope to do their sacrifice and commitment justice as I advocate on their behalf.
But this is a question they are asking as well: how does culture change occur on this scale?
Anthropologists and other behavioral scientists define culture as the full range of learned human behavior patterns. And for the large part, culture is a very positive thing. Indians practices many cultural traditions that are beautiful. For instance, I love how extended families stay together, often with three and four generations living together in the same home, where their children directly care for elderly members of the family. They share a very strong family tradition.
And we all have our cultural blind spots. I think of materialism and the driving need to acquire here in the West, and the destructive impact on the environment. There are times when it is appropriate to confront culture and we can all learn from each other as members of the world community.
Every one of us is a product of the culture in which we live. I was defined by the very unique family culture in which I grew up. For instance, my passion for social justice stems from a lifetime of watching my father and mother serve people in need– in their case, helping people overcome drug and alcohol addictions and homelessness– at great personal sacrifice.
I grew up in what many would call poverty because my parents preferred to volunteer the majority of their time, helping the down and out, than work traditional jobs. We lived, as a family of six, in small travel trailers throughout most of my childhood. While I was in High School, our travel trailer was parked in a trailer park behind the No-tell Motel off of Miracle Mile, the notorious red light district of Tucson at that time.
But you couldn’t have convinced us we were poor. The rich life of purpose and helping others may have been at the cost of many comforts and financial security, but, to this day, I wouldn’t trade it for wealth, because I know it was part of the culture that formed who I am today.
Every experience we have defines who we will become, whether good or bad. One of the greatest defining moments for me was a knife accident that left me without my right eye at the young age of nine. I now have a prosthetic eye.
But here’s another great example of how our fundamental mindsets influence outcomes in our lives, because my parents refused to believe the loss of my eye would be a handicap, as many others considered it. The doctors warned I probably wouldn’t have a normal life like other boys because of my lack of depth perception. I would have trouble riding a bike and other similar activities.
So how did my parents respond to this dire prediction? They bought me a unicycle! And yes, I learned to ride it. They refused to accept that I would be limited in any way by the loss of my eye and as a result, I didn’t believe it was a limitation either. I’ve grown up like any other normal, adventurous guy; hiking, camping, riding motorcycles. Today I am an avid mountain biker and love adventure, and would never even consider not trying something because I only have one eye.
I remember one of the many defining moments of my life occurred while standing on the playground, surrounded by classmates, shortly after returning to school with my first newly made prosthetic eye.
It happened when someone asked if I could take it out. I said, sure, and popped it out. An amazing thing happened: the girls shrieked and ran away screaming, and I might as well have had super powers as far as the boys were concerned, and suddenly, every boy in school wanted a fake eye too.
This is the first lesson I can remember on becoming a culture changer– albeit an accidental culture changer. Because I witnessed, first hand, how events can begin to influence mindsets that can lead to a shift in the communal perspective on, in this case, disability. You see, what had been an environment of mourning and loss– poor Evan and his tragic knife accident; he’ll never be the same– I had become the primary example for every kid in the area on how not to use a knife; “you don’t want to end up like Evan do you?” And suddenly, I’m the envy of every boy at school. It was a life-altering realization that what was for all intents and purposes a major loss, could suddenly become a significant asset!
And I took it and ran, figuratively and literally, after the girls. Soon, I discovered lots of ways to capitalize on this newfound talent. It was great fun when playing hide and seek, because I could take it out and look around corners, or behind the couch or in the closet and say, “I see you!”
It wasn’t long before everyone learned not to say things like, “Evan, can you keep an eye out for so and so,” or, “Evan, can you keep your eye on my briefcase while I go to the bathroom?” I realized at that moment that culture could be changed and that I could become a culture changer.
My life was never the same after that; I took life as it came, even to the point of becoming a one-eyed filmmaker! How does that work, huh? That’s a whole nother talk, but suffice it to say, living in a two-dimensional world is actually an asset when working in a two-dimensional format like film and television.
But back to culture: some people have challenged me about my supposition that culture can be bad and need changing. Some insist that cultural traditions are above moral judgment. For instance, there are indigenous tribal groups in the Amazon Basin in South America that commonly bury infants alive when they are born with a disability, or born twins. Their religious beliefs are such that these disabled infants could bring a curse on the tribe. The tribe is protected through a ritualistic burial of the offending child. And the parents are required to perform the rite or be cast out of the tribe.
Coming from a culture that considers those with disabilities as equally valuable and deserving of every opportunity, my inclination is to call this practice in the Amazon murder.
But there are tribal advocacy groups who insist that these ancient tribal cultures are above reproach; that these practices are representative of ancient dying cultures that must be protected. Others insist that these disabled infants should be rescued, and many have.
I would suggest that a society that values and protects those with disabilities is morally superior to one that does not. This assertion is supported by examples of “alternately abled” people living amazing lives and contributing significant good to the world. People like Helen Keller and Joni Erickson-tada. People like Jessica
Cox, a woman who overcame significant disability — she was born without arms — to become a pilot. She now travels the world serving as a mentor, motivational speaker, and advocate for the alternately abled. And there are numerous other similar examples of those overcoming physical limitations to accomplish great things, like the amazing Lori Schneider who we will be hearing from soon!
There are many diverse expressions of culture around the world that are a-moral. But there are other’s that cross the line and create human rights violations and gendercide is one of those.
As I’ve looked at a number of examples of major human rights violations, like the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; or Apartheid in South Africa; or genocides, like the Jewish Holocaust, I have noticed a some similarities:
- The victims were reduced to non-citizen, almost sub-human status by the oppressing class
- Surrounding nations and members of the world community turned a blind eye and avoided getting involved for far too long before intervening
- Ending these atrocities required significant intervention by the world community, including sanctions, boycotts, and sometimes war.
- Without intervention from those who were willing to fight for justice, millions more would have died or have been exploited.
The historical accounts of the Jewish Holocaust are full of those who lived in Germany and surrounding countries, and who later expressed great regret that they didn’t act to help the trainloads of people heading for concentration camps and worse. And there are many others, like Oskar Schindler as depicted in the movie, Schindler’s List, whom we celebrate because of their extraordinary courage and bravery in helping many escape the Holocaust.
Which side of history do you and I want to be on when accounts are taken of the final end of gendercide?
Recently, in India, a number of high profile gang rape cases of women and girls, some as young as 4 and 5 years old, have resulted result in major protests and demonstrations throughout Delhi and other parts of India. The Indian government has promised reforms, but what has been done so far is more symbolism than substance, and India has proven a tendency to create laws then fail to enforce them. For instance, sex-selection and female feticide is illegal, as is dowry, yet they continue to occur on an ever-increasing scale.
Many are calling for education and women’s empowerment, hoping that with an elevated status, the plight of women in India will improve. But with the highest skewed sex ratios occurring in the regions of India with the highest level of education and income, and with a woman sitting as president of India throughout the past few years and woman in positions of influence throughout the government– all while conditions worsen for women, education and women’s empowerment does not seem to be the silver bullet solution.
The movement in India is at a critical stage– a stage at which it might flounder and usher in decades more of the subjugation and killing of millions of girls if not for the support and action of the world community. This is when it’s up to culture changers like you and I, to join with the culture changers in India and China, and together demand change. The It’s a Girl campaign has mobilized nearly half a million people from all over the world to join our cause to end gendercide in India and China so far. But imagine if we had tens of millions of people demanding world leaders take action!?
I know the reality is that culture change is much more complex than this. But it is a start towards restoring dignity and value to girls and women who desperately need help now.
And when it comes to violence against women, I would be remiss to not mention our ongoing challenges right here at home, and in many other parts of the word. Each of us can eliminate violence against women by honoring and respecting the women in our lives first; by teaching our sons to do the same and our daughters to expect nothing less; and then by adding our voices to those, like the women of India and China, who are calling for change. We can become culture-changers, and together, create a whole new future for the girls of India and China.