Neelam Bala is a fearless local midwife and activist in India's northern state of Punjab, where she works to challenge practices that value a girl's life as worth less than a boy's.

India has over 50 million more males than females, according to United Nations estimates. Even though ultrasound sex-determination is illegal in India, the country has one of the highest rates of female foeticide in the world. Millions of baby girls have been aborted in the past three decades.

In her community, Neelam insists that parents appreciate their baby no matter the gender, and she is happy whenever she can safely deliver a baby girl. But she faces pushback from men and women who see girls as a burden on their families, who have to save money for their future dowries.

Despite the challenges, Neelam continues her work, and before she retires she is determined to pass on her knowledge to her niece, who is studying to be a midwife in the hope of saving more girls' lives.

Years of selective abortion have taken a toll in some places. In the "Village of Men" in Haryana, a northern state, no girl has been born for decades, and single men's only hope is to find a bride from outside the region, which is frowned upon.

Meanwhile, in Dharhara village in Bihar state, where girls are especially revered, one tradition offers a different way forward: villagers plant fruit trees to celebrate the birth of a girl and use the money from selling the fruit to pay for the girls' school expenses and dowries.


By Rama Rau

Making The Daughter Tree almost killed me.

We were caught in caste riots in Haryana, I went through massive depression hearing some of the stories about baby girls, and the funding woes alone were enough to halt everything. But I did not stop.

I believed in this film and my passion to tell the story never waned. And here we are, after six years in production, with a film that is an epic search across India for an answer to so many questions.

I always say this is a film that has been developed over a lifetime - mine. What started as perhaps an interesting subject about unwanted baby girls in India slowly developed into an epic, sometimes dangerous, film that took me six years to make.

I knew I wanted it to be about the fierce midwife. Fierce older women have always fascinated me. I interviewed dozens of nurses, midwives and doctors, and soon started getting pulled into the story, allowing myself to grieve for all those nameless baby girls who had never been given a chance to live.

Growing up female in India, these stories were not unknown to me. My mother and grandmother would constantly talk about how little power a woman has and how girl babies are not really eagerly awaited. But that was in south India. We are milder down south. In the north, as was explained to me by a venerable historian I met, boys were necessary because of constant invasions from the northern border. This evolved into an historic preference for males.

Today, with modern inventions, ultrasound scans have enabled the mass abortions of baby girls - which the government had declared illegal in September 2003.

But the real-world result of the rampant abortions that began more than 20 years ago is that there are now entire swaths of Punjab and Haryana where no girl has been born for decades. There are entire "Villages of Men". I found three brothers and was fascinated by their intensity and hope that they would, indeed, find a bride.

Weaving these stories into a magical fable, we have a third thread which takes place in another village in far-flung Bihar in northern India's vast, dry Indo-Gangetic plain.

Surrounded by arid land, the tiny emerald village of Dharhara stands out in its verdant glory. For centuries, the people in this village have been planting trees every time a girl is born.

They call this tree the Daughter Tree.

Source: Al Jazeera