Why wait for a girl to get trafficked to save her?

Anagha Khare
Thursday, 31 January 2019

Asks Leena Kejriwal, an artist, a photographer and the founder of the MISSING Project

Leena Kejriwal is on a mission to save girls from being trafficked by creating awareness through various initiatives. Her body of work is large and she uses art and technology and everything in between to ensure that her message reaches out to a larger audience. She has received appreciation in India and globally, and she is also the proud recipient of the inaugural YES Foundation Changemaker Award. She tells us about her journey so far. Excerpts:

The MISSING project is gaining momentum. What triggered it?
Yes, I started it in 2014, after 10 years of my work in the space. I was a photographer, I had been roaming around the streets of Kolkata and I went into a red light district to click my first images. And that’s the experience which I always say that never left me. 

As an artist, I started working closely with NGOs like Hamari Muskan and New Light, and that’s when I came across these girls, in the thick of the red light, very vulnerable. I was working with them from 2010 to 2014, doing many photographic installations, mainly international exhibitions, highlighting the issue of trafficking. Though the European audiences loved it, I wanted to talk to the people of India. We see new girls standing there because of the demand. 

It’s pure economics — where there is demand, there will be a supply. So you might nab a trafficker today but soon another girl will come and stand there. I wanted to say this to the Indian public, ‘Hey, get up! Rise up to the fact’. So, that led me to go to the school of visual arts to do a residency in public art. I went there in September, I came back and my head was zooming with ideas. 

Your project involves the use of larger-than-life black silhouettes of young girls. Where did the idea come from?
I remember this amazing sentence my curator had once said. He said, “Leena, an eye is an ultimate black hole, which takes in everything that goes in.” I decided the imagery then — my girl — she’s a silhouette, she’s black, because it’s a black hole into which millions of girls disappear from the face of the earth, because only a black hole can catch the millions. I shared my work with Sangita Jindal of ‘Art India’, who immediately jumped at it and said why don’t we make a prototype? Put the first installation out at the India Art fair with JSW. So, it was launched at that art fair. 

But as an art form, how popular are installations in India? 
The Indian public space is not so regulated or it’s not easy to traverse. I haven’t been able to put it out yet. So my first pieces, which I had crowdfunded for in 2015, are still lying in the foundry. Beyond that, because I was unable to put the works out, I started a social media campaign and then, I built an app.
The app also has another story. I had actually crowdfunded for an AR (Augmented Reality) app when AR was still very nascent. My game developer told me, ‘The game industry is still in its silent era, it’s such a powerful medium and it’s still not being used.’
The gaming industry is now waking up to the power of the games which I kind of felt it then. So though the installations are still in the foundry, I am very happy that the project is out and I am learning each day about the public space. 

So how is technology helping you further your cause?
My whole campaign is online. How else did I build my community? I was an artist sitting on my computer. Social media helped me, the whole digital space... I did a stencil campaign which turned out so amazing. 

People from across the world took down the stencils from the net, created stencils and put it in their own spaces. It became such a powerful campaign, because there was no paper involved, it was advocacy in its purest form of narratives, storytelling, empathy building and leaving you with an ownership because all those girls who did those stencils became their owners and spokespersons. My curator calls the stencil a ‘silent argument in a public space’. And it’s just that.
How far have you reached? Were there any hiccups along the way?
Well, YES foundation stepped forward and helped us in the initial year. Then we have Sandvik Asia now, and we have had other corporates who have helped us. We are very small; my Trust has just turned three.

We tied up with Khushi foundation last year. We have reached 25,000 municipal schools. We are on the threshold of collaborating with Save The Children and Techno India because we want to collaborate with bigger organisations with a bigger reach. Hopefully, our collaboration with Nanhi Kali foundation, with which we have started discussions, will help us reach 160,000 teenage girls across India, which is huge. 

Luckily, I have not felt any challenges. I was a speaker at the International Justice Mission Conference, but I was one of the few outsiders who were allowed 5 minutes on the podium because everyone was talking about trafficking, and here I was talking about an interactive comic. We will use this comic as a tool to take people into a phase of learning, a passive learning which gives them direct calls to action. 

So, what would you like to tell our readers? How could they help address this issue?
When you see something’s not right, be vocal. You can’t say, ‘Yeh, meri baat nahi hai.’ And girls… Don’t be a good girl, be a smart girl. My survivor was having a case in the court and I asked, ‘Tumko abhi darr toh nahi lag raha hai?’ and she said, ‘Ma’am, mere sath jo hua uske baad kisi baat se darr nahi lagta.’ This girl was raped for one month, before she agreed to get into the brothel.
I hear such terrible stories all the time. It’s a black hole! A red light area is an open criminal industry. And because it’s so open, the public doesn’t even know it’s illegal. People are unaware. I feel awareness equals to prevention. We are working in the ‘pre’. Why wait for a girl to get trafficked to save her?

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