Human Rights Watch report says abuse “disturbingly common”, especially in schools and state-run child care facilities.
Kolkata, India – A walk down the narrow, labyrinthine lanes of Kalighat reveals a new kind of graffiti splashed across its walls. Life-size silhouettes of young girls pop up at every turn of this bustling Kolkata neighbourhood, better known for its Kali temple and the city’s oldest red-light district.
This is no ordinary graffiti. It is a part of Leena Kejriwal’s public art project, MISSING, through which volunteers are stencilling public spaces across the country to create awareness about the girls who vanish mysteriously from their homes, schools or workplaces, and are trafficked into sex work.
“The silhouettes represent dark holes into which millions of girls have disappeared, never to be found again,” said Kejriwal, a Kolkata-based photographer and installation artist, who over the past decade has worked with various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that rescue sex-trafficked women and help rehabilitate them.
A 2008 United Nations report in collaboration with the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development revealed that there are three million commercial sex workers in India, of which an estimated 40 percent are children.
“The numbers are astounding, but what upsets me immensely is that girls between nine and 12 are most vulnerable to trafficking,” Kejriwal told Al Jazeera.
“How many Indians are aware of that?” she asked.
For many years, her art projects tried to address that ignorance. But she realised that showcasing her work in galleries wasn’t allowing her to reach a broad audience with her message.
That is when the idea of a public art project was born.
‘We cannot remain passive’
It began in January last year, when Kejriwal created four-and-a-half-metre-tall iron and fibreglass installations of missing girls for India Art Fair, one of the country’s most popular art exhibitions in New Delhi. The response was powerful.
“People found the issue both sad and scary and were shocked by its enormity,” Kejriwal said.
“There were reactions like ‘eye-opening’ and ‘jaw-dropping’ and they were horrified to learn that sex trafficking is such a flourishing business in the country,” she added. “Most people realised that we cannot remain passive about the problem any more.”
To create more figures for other Indian cities, Kejriwal crowd-funded more than 1.6 million rupees (about $24,000) through Wishberry in June and July.
While those installations are being prepared, the message is being taken nationwide through stencil art. With help from students, artists and young girls rescued from traffickers, the shadows of missing girls have been painted on more than 200 walls in nine Indian cities, including Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Bangalore.
Priyanka Rungta, an entrepreneur from Kolkata, says she was deeply affected by the silhouettes.
“The thought of losing a child is the sickest emotion imaginable. To empathise with those who have experienced it is the least we can do to prevent others from this deep abyss,” she told Al Jazeera.
Shabnam Sisodiya is a 23-year-old who was rescued from a brothel a few years ago. She is now in high school and lives at New Light, an anti sex-trafficking NGO in Kolkata, which is helping her to reintegrate into society.
Sisodiya helped with some of the stencilled images and says: “Young girls are tricked into prostitution by men in various ways, including false promises of marriage, a home in a big city, a lucrative job or lots of money.”
The drawings on the walls
Seventeen-year-old student Minni Sarkar, who preferred not to give her real name, painted the artwork on the walls of the Bowbazar red-light district in Kolkata, where she lives with her parents.
She spends most of her time at school or at Hamari Muskan – an NGO that works towards improving the lives of sex workers’ children – learning photography and painting among other things.
But the neighbourhood where she lives makes her easy prey for pimps and brothel managers. “The drawings on the walls are a message for girls like me to be wary of stalkers who are always looking for an opportunity to trap us,” she says.
In New Delhi’s street market Meena Bazaar, set against the backdrop of the city’s Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, people have been involved in spreading awareness about the issue.
Street vendors have pledged to call the child helpline number or to take a lost child to the nearby NGO, Jamghat, which provides shelter for homeless children.
“I was shocked to know that in India, every eight minutes a child goes missing,” says Salim bhai, who sells clothes on the street. “Now that I’m aware of a helpline, I will certainly use it if I find a lost child.”
Human trafficking is a global phenomenon and the third-largest source of profit after illegal drugs and arms trafficking, for organised crime. Despite an Indian Penal Code law stipulating prison sentences of three years to life for offenders, enforcement is poor and many go unpunished.
Girls trafficked into prostitution are often young, poor and, in many cases, from one of the lower castes, making them especially easy targets.
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Urmi Basu, the founder of New Light, believes that raising awareness is key to bringing about change.
“MISSING is a very significant project in terms of raising curiosity through public art. As more and more people are informed of the gruesome facts, there will be a demand for change,” she says.
Meanwhile, Kejriwal is looking for even more powerful ways to spread the message. The silhouettes will eventually be supplemented by a reality app and mobile game that will share the real stories of trafficked girls.
“The mobile game is bound to touch a nerve,” says Kejriwal, adding that it will allow the player to get into the shoes of a trafficked girl and experience her life. These are expected to go live next year.
“I’m really happy that we are getting little children, girls and women from rural and semi-urban backgrounds and even men to support us,” she adds.
Artist Aditya Verma, one of the volunteers who stencilled the figures at New Delhi’s Connaught Place market, says he is happy to be given a chance to stand up for the country’s women.
“I’m doing this for women. I want them to know they are not forgotten. I’m working for their safety.”