Bas! A documentary that paves the way to cultural innovation: valuing women in India (and elsewhere!)
When was the last time you saw a movie that gave you the lasting impression that what our world needed most was cultural innovation much more than fancy new technologies? This is exactly how I felt when I left the theatre where Bas! Beyond the Red Light was being shown.
This documentary, to which the Canadian International Development Agency and other partners brought their support, shows how the Rescue Foundation located in Mumbai, India, rescues, rehabilitates and repatriates girls who have been sold for forced prostitution.
The documentary tells us just enough about how child trafficking is organized, how these young women are being manipulated and how traffickers and the women who operate the brothels work together. According to the Rescue Foundation, a 14 or 15-year old Nepali girl can be sold for as much as 150 000 rupees (approx CAD $3600) in Mumbai’s largest brothel networks. The documentary also explains how these young women are led to believe that they will remain for the rest of their lives in brothels. One key argument is that going back to their home is impossible since their soul and body have been spoiled forever and that would only bring shame to their parents and relatives.
What the documentary does very effectively thanks to its Writer, Director and Producer, Wendy Champagne, is to show how another version of this story can be told. And I would be tempted to say, must be told for these young women to face a brighter future. Wendy Champagne spent a lot of time observing and filming how Nancy Leduc, a Canadian choreographer, gradually helped these young women to let light shine again out of their souls and bodies. Dance is here used as a medium for these women to communicate feelings, to establish new bonds with their peers and to also draw their own personal boundaries against potential abuse. This process of regaining a sense of control over one’s life is simply beautiful to watch unfold, even if the process remains fragile and reminiscent of painful memories at times.
I got however increasingly puzzled by, and somewhat uncomfortable with the notion that getting married represented for most of these young women the only way out. At one point or another, they have to leave the Rescue Foundation behind and pursue a “normal” life. Both Wendy Champagne and Denis McCready, Producer, were available at the end of the projection to discuss with the audience. This is how I understood that several of the men who choose to marry these young women come from regions in India where there is now an important gender imbalance. Of course, I couldn’t help but make connections with medical technologies such as ultrasound and other prenatal tests that facilitate the elimination of female foetuses in countries where women are seen as less valuable.
According to a study that examined the sex ratio at birth using hospital records, there would be currently around 44 million “missing women” in India (Sahni and colleagues, 2008). The authors suggest that neglect of girls (for instance, not seeking proper medical care on time), infanticides and feticides would all be responsible. This study examined the evolution of the sex ratio over a period of 110 years and found that an important fall “coincided with the availability of ultra sound for antenatal sex determination” in the early 1980s (892 girls per 1000 boys). The ratio also fell significantly in 1995 (855). In 1996, a Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Regulation and Prevention of Misuse Act was implemented, which made antenatal sex determination and sex selective abortion illegal in India. Sahni and colleagues observe however that the Act “has had little impact on the problem” since the sex ratio in 2005 (865) did not differ much from that in the decade before.
While their study is based on hospital records only (which is an important limitation given the fact that two-thirds of births take place at home or outside medical institutions), these authors have found “that gender bias exists regardless of religion, caste and socio-economic class, although it seems that it is more prevalent among the middle classes compared to the poor.” This last observation is compatible with the national census data examined by George (2006) who stresses that “the prosperous and/or educated misuse prenatal technologies to efficiently eliminate girls” and that the decline in sex ratio “in urban areas is greater than in rural areas because of the increased access and utilization of medical services.”
Now, getting back to the documentary, a movie like Bas! does certainly raise awareness and may help prevent other young women from falling prey to trafficking. One is forced however to recognize that such disturbing cultural practices have multiple ramifications, including so-called technological “advances.”
This is one of the reasons why I believe that another story must be told about women who survive child trafficking and forced prostitution. They should be valued for what they are: living proofs of how human resilience may be nurtured. What they went through makes them different, more knowledgeable about some of their country’s shortcomings and about how social prejudices must be challenged, not reinforced by medical technology. Perhaps only men with a heightened respect for who these women are should pretend for marriage? Or perhaps these women should be supported to pursue their life as singles? The story nevertheless should tell to the rest of the world that cultural shifts —sometimes way beyond technological breakthroughs— are part of the greatest inventions of all.
The video trailer is available here :
Bas! Beyond the Red Light – documentary trailer
|Author :||Pascale Lehoux, Ph.D.|
Sahni, M., Verma, N., Narula, D., Varghese, R.M., Sreenivas, V., Puliyel, J.M. (2008). Missing girls in India: infanticide, feticide and made-to-order pregnancies? Insights from hospital-based sex-ratio-at-birth over the last century. PLoS One. 3(5):e2224.
George, S.M., (2006). Millions of missing girls: from fetal sexing to high technology sex selection in India. Prenatal Diagnostic. 26(7): 604-9.