April 16, 2012— -- Deesh Sekhon is an Indian woman. In a way, this alone makes her a survivor.
It's been called gendercide: the elimination of girls through sex-selective abortion, neglect or murder to avoid a deep-set custom in Indian culture -- paying dowry to future husbands' families. According to the United Nations, as many as 50,000 female fetuses are aborted every month in India, and untold numbers of baby girls are abandoned or killed.
In December, Sekhon, a photographer from Abbotsford, British Columbia, whose parents immigrated from India, saw a "20/20" story on gendercide. It featured Unique Home, an orphanage for abandoned girls in Jalandhar, Punjab, where her family is from.
"I had no idea this was happening," she told ABC News. "It motivated me to do something for these girls, and to raise awareness to inspire others to get involved."
Sekhon started a social media campaign, "Save A Girl," which ran from mid-December 2011 to Jan. 31, 2012. It encouraged people to donate clothes and other goods to be delivered to the girls by members of Sekhon's family on their next trip to India.
On March 15 a group that included Sekhon's father, sister and niece delivered 1,200 items.
"Money is great," said Sekhon, "but I wanted to give the girls things they could hold in their hands – clothes, hair products, undergarments, trinkets girls love. I wanted them to feel nice that someone out there was thinking of them" and the specific things they might need or appreciate.
The girls were joyful, as is apparent in a Youtube video Sekhon created from photos of the visit. Sekhon's niece overheard one girl, who was in tears, say, "At least someone out there cares." Prakash Kaur, who founded and runs Unique Home, kissed a book containing what Sekhon called "Notes of Hope" – cards and letters from donors to Save A Girl.
Unique Home was founded in 1993. Approximately 60 girls, from newborns to teenagers, live there. Some are found in trash cans; many are left in a dedicated drop box near the entrance to the home.
Tom Harrigan, a trustee of UK Friends of Unique Home (Punjab) who facilitated Sekhon's efforts, said via email, "As a result of Deesh's selfless motivation and determination she has helped improve the quality of life for the girls at the Home. She has to be commended on her efforts, not forgetting all those who contributed to the success of her initiative."
Sekhon isn't the only one to have gotten involved. Dr. Manpreet Bains, a California pediatrician of Indian heritage, saw the "20/20" program and soon after founded My Savera, a charitable organization (she has applied for nonprofit status) to help the girls of Unique Home and other abandoned girls, and to raise awareness of gendercide.
Bains' first project was an online fund drive to pay for the birthday celebration Unique Home holds for its girls every April 24. My Savera recently passed its $2,500 goal, Bains told ABC News. Two thousand dollars will be given to Unique Home to pay for food, decorations and a tent. The remainder will buy each girl a personalized box to give them some private space -- something they lack and would likely cherish, Bains said -- as well as toys for the younger girls.
This fall Bains plans to host a screening of "It's A Girl," a documentary film scheduled to be released in 2012 that examines gendercide in India, China and elsewhere.
Bains plans to help other orphanages in the future, and to harness and coordinate interest in the U.S. in helping orphan girls and fighting gendercide. Someone from the U.S. emails her almost daily, she told ABC News via email.
North of the border, Deesh Sekhon is setting up a nonprofit organization to "empower girls like me and the next generation to do bigger things to help these girls," she said. She plans to repeat the Save A Girl drive later this year; her relatives will deliver what it brings in plus some leftover items from the initial drive.
As for her goal of inspiring others to get involved, Sekhon said members of Vancouver's large Indian community are working to bring girls to Canada and pay for their educations, then help them return to India. Others have expressed interest in adopting (although Kaur prohibits adoptions from Unique Home out of fear the girls might be mistreated again). Still others plan to visit Unique Home and other orphanages bearing gifts, something they never would have done before Sekhon's drive and donation because of fears their goodwill would be hampered by local corruption, Sekhon said.
Dowry, Gendercide Illegal -- But Persist
While she has received a lot of support from her local Indian-Canadian community, Sekhon said some older members have been cool to her efforts, telling her it's better "to keep things the way they are." The younger generation, like Sekhon, are "blown away" by gendercide. Sekhon, noting that she is the third daughter in her family, said she and other Indian women have a personal stake in the issue. "We've all dealt with the [gender] inequality in Indian culture. [The victims of gendercide] could be one of us."
Dowries were prohibited in 1961. And it's illegal to use ultrasound to learn a baby's sex and to abort a baby based on sex. The custom, and killing, continue regardless.
Gendercide's damage has expanded beyond mothers and girls. India's 2011 Census revealed that Indian men outnumber women by nearly 40 million, making some families buy trafficked brides for their sons.
Sekhon has never been to India and plans to go in the next few years, when her baby boy is a bit older. "I can't wait," she said. "I will volunteer at Unique Home and other [places like it]."
"Every girl deserves a chance at life," Sekhon said. "Cultural values need to change. We all come from someone's daughter."