Have you spotted a life-sized black coloured silhouette of a girl on your city walls yet? The MISSING Art Project founded by Artist Leena Kejriwal has been making noise in the city of Delhi (and others) for the right reasons – challenging status quo on trafficking for sex and seeding conversations on demand for minor girls in the commercial sex industry. Influenced by her proximity to Sonagachi, and her photography expeditions in red light areas across India, Leena uses her visual might and the innovative technology to draw attention to the all-pervasive issue of female trafficking.
In conversation with the artist cum activist, who is engaging the public on their role in choking the demand for the trafficking of girls in India.
1. Tell us the story behind how and why you were inspired to work on the issue of female trafficking in India?
Ans: It is very difficult to say. This is an issue that shakes me, moves me. Multiple people have asked me this question, so I do try to take them through my journey as a photographer where I entered a red light area.. an experience that didn’t leave me. As I look back to my childhood.. I lived in a house on the main road to Sonaganchi (also known as India’s largest red-light district) in Kolkata and I do remember being told as a child..“That’s the place where they catch girls and take them away… Don’t look that side!” The sheer horror and mental imagery of girls being caught, the stories of their abuse, and having heard them so early in my life leaves an indescribable feeling within me… that’s why my visit and experience to the red light area was so intense. Today, it allows me to use that intensity in the work I do now.
I truly believe that as women with more privileges and freedoms, we should be more vocal about our friends who are suffering. This has been a topic close to my heart which is why I have been driven to talk about it through my art.
2. 2 million young girls are trafficked each year. How has the Missing Art Project contributed to awareness and intervention on this issue? Share with us a few examples.
Ans: In my journey on working on the issue of female trafficking, first as a volunteer in red light areas and now on the Missing Art Project, I realised that the demand was the primary issue that most people working in this space were facing. Every time there is a demand, there is a new girl standing, being made available. That’s what I saw too… the flow of girls was always there, it never stopped. That’s why I felt that the public had to be spoken to…why hasn’t anyone does that yet and why isn’t anyone approaching this in a more systematic manner? That’s led me to think, I want to make some art that will make people think and make them more aware of the issue.
I began with making very complicated artworks and showcasing them within gallery spaces, mainly in Europe between 2010-14, but it was also the time I realised that it wasn’t my audience…. I wanted to speak to the Indian public! That was my initiation in the public art space, pushing me to create public artwork to engage the public on the issue of sex trafficking and highlighting the role they play in curbing it and the role they play by creating a demand, so that every time there is a new girl standing. That was the most basic premise on which was built the MISSING Art Project – to create awareness and sensitize the public on sex trafficking and the role they play in the rising numbers of girls being trafficked today.
3. The ‘cut out’ girl has become synonymous with the Missing girls art project. What have been peoples reactions and responses to the stencil project? How have you managed to engage the public with this tool?
Ans: The cut-out girl was actually a by-product of the bigger installations which were launched at the India Art Fair. These larger than life installations were made of fibreglass, iron and steel, set against the open sky with black holes cut out into it, but, with a larger objective of being cut out and still lying in the foundry. But because the main aim was not for an artist to put out an installation in a public space, rather about public engagement, I started a social media campaign to engage the public and undertook crowdfunding to create my own army of people who believed in what we said. This pushed me to create the stencil project which was an easier, more doable version … we put it out on our website as a DIY kit, easily accessible and downloadable to all.
Through June, July, August in 2015, when we were focusing on crowdfunding, we undertook the exercise of creating your own stencils with schools, high schools… they took such joy in becoming part of this campaign and lending their voice to our protest. Today, we have people downloading the kit, tracing it on cardboard, cutting it out, going into the neighbourhoods and and putting it on their walls, taking pictures with it and sending it back to us… saying “We are with you!”. It has been an immense partnership with individuals, artists and schools.
4. Does the Missing Art Project engage children/ young people on the issue of trafficking? What role do you believe they have as change makers for this grave issue?
Ans: It has…of course it has engaged the youth! Our main engagement starts from high school onwards. We start talking to children above 13 years old, because that’s when your body is changing, you’re hitting puberty, sex education in India is poor, young people are looking at pornography as their only form of sex education. Girls bodies are changing too, they are developing new feelings, emotions…and at that point of time, when you are unaware and unfamiliar with what is happening to you, when a trafficker approaches you, you are gullible and naïve to believe when he says “Hey! I like you.” Therefore, our main target group has been school and college students, anyone between 15-35 years. Our recently launched MISSING Game also targets the youth, putting boys in the shoes of a girl and making them realise the fear and frustrations that go into being in the clutches of a trafficker. The youth are an integral community that we have built and continue to build on, and they will be the future change makers because they shall be making new fabric for a new society.
5. Recently you showcased your art mural at the #chokethedemand initiative- Delhi’s first interactive mural experience on the demand for children in the sex industry. Tell us about it.
Ans: #Chokethedemand is a campaign we did in collaboration with change.org to collectively address the rise in figures of children getting trafficked for sex in India – our fit with them was perfect. Our work has been focused on missing girls, stopping trafficking, and curbing demand…so #chokethedemand was brilliant. Also, since we believe in art and technology for change, we created interactive murals and installations, in order to reach out to the youth. Our work for Delhi was particularly more graphic because they already have beautiful street art by other organizations. We used monocromatic art with just a hint of colour, in order for it to stand out. What was unique about our mural was that it had a chat pod with it, which we did in Kolkata too. In Delhi our primary theme was violence against women, for which we took infamous quotes from politicans saying “boys will be boys, they make mistakes” ,“90% of all rape is consentual”, “rape zabardasti nahi hota, ho jata hain”, things like these (we found so many of them!)… so the fonts and text were gripping, making people take a second look and wonder what these quotes were really saying. That’s been our ploy for Delhi and its worked very well.
6. In your words, “Art is activism”. How has your work of art pushed the discourse on child trafficking in India? Illustrate with examples.
Ans: Art can also be activism, it is not only activism. Art is a powerful tool to engage the public. The MISSING Art Project’s purpose has only been to push the discourse on child trafficking. We have already engaged quite a big community. In fact, we have 70+ countries who play the MISSING game, not only in India. I have been called to talk about the impact and significance of the MISSING game to New York, Korea, Berlin, and to illustrate how I have used art and technology as a tool to push the conversation on trafficking. Interestingly, we are waiting for more Indians to play the game…we have 12 vernacular versions out. We are keen that people from rural, semi-rural and semi-urban areas of India, play the game, engage with us and get more informed about trafficking and the roles we all play. The stencil project too is an example of how we push the discourse on child trafficking through art.
7. The MISSING game is an innovative approach to exposing the player to the dark world of human trafficking and raising awareness. How do you believe the advent of technology has been instrumental in driving social change? On the flip side, apps like whatsapp are opening new avenues for trafficking. Highlight the pros and cons of technology in relation to the issue of child trafficking.
Ans: You can’t ignore technology today. Everything has a flip side, and so does technology. When I started the campaign, I did not think of technology in a big way. When someone said to me “Leena you have to embrace technology,” is when I actually started doing that. Technology allowed me to talk to people about trafficking through social media and build a community, just sitting at my desk. The crowdfunding, the MISSING game are all technology products, and a very integral part of my dialogue on trafficking. It allows us to reach millions, on their personal phones, create awareness and push them to take action. Of course one cannot ignore the flip side, where children and girls get exploited for sex and other things. But we also use technology to create awareness on its negative side, through MISSING we are engaging young girls about the threats online too. We have undertaken a systemic school program reaching out to adolescents on the issue so that they are equipped if approached through different media. I recently heard of Sweden passing a verdict against ‘online rape’. How brilliant is that? Technology is a space we cannot and must not ignore.
8. Recently, the cabinet approved the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018. What do you believe are the positive outcomes and shortcomings of this bill?
Ans: The Bill is very broad, it tries and covers many things. It it supposed to be ‘THE” Bill which the whole of South East Asia is supposed to look up to and follow. They have worked very hard on it… awareness on the issue forms a huge component of the bill which is brilliant, but, they have not addressed prostitution, exploitation of children for sex as a separate agenda, which is very sad. They have spoken of hormonal injections and body changes of children but for what? This gives people a lot of loopholes to work around. The bill needs to be tighter, more direct, less layered, because the more the layers the more difficult it gets for us to nab the traffickers. The situation is already so slippery and this way traffickers get leaner outlets.
9. Tell us about your work in India and overseas. How differently are countries handling the issue of child trafficking? Illustrate any international model for anti-trafficking that you believe has been successful.
Ans: We totally believe in the Nordic model, we believe that there should be criminalization of buying of sex. We believe in what Sweden and the Nordic countries have done, we love France and Ireland for it! In India, the laws are in a grey area, though buying of sex is decriminalised, red light areas function very openly, and the laws need to get stricter, and the laws against traffickers needs to be stricter too. Most importantly, the public needs to be more aware of what is allowed and what is not. At the moment, they don’t know much!