With Missing, Leena Kejriwal uses art to raise awareness on victims of trafficking

Leena Kejriwal, a HerStory Women on a Mission awardee speaks about Missing, her project, initiated through art installations, photography and technology that aims at both awareness against trafficking for sex and engagement to provide knowledge to children, and women.

With Missing, Leena Kejriwal uses art to raise awareness on victims of trafficking

Wednesday March 20, 2019,

7 min Read

What happens when children and women are trafficked and forced into prostitution? They lose their dreams, their hope and faith in humanity. They are sucked into a vortex, which has no beginning, no end - they remain a statistic that binds them to what others call fate or misfortune.

Today, there are an estimated three million prostitutes in India, of which 1.2 million are young girls. The average age of recruitment of girls into prostitution is between nine and 12 years of age. These are disturbing statistics.

Art transcends boundaries

Leena Kejriwal initiated the Missing project to raise awareness on sex trafficking.

While growing up in Kolkata, Leena Kejriwal’s family home happened to be close to Sonagachi - one of the largest red light districts of the city. This experience was perhaps a precursor to Missing, her bold and impactful initiative later in life, which she brought alive through her art.

“My awareness of the existence of a red light district happened as a child. I had heard tales of girls and women who were caught and put there. Every time our car passed the lane, we were told not to look ‘that side’. Furtive glances gave me glimpses of girls and ladies standing on the roadside,” she recalls.

The youngest girl in a traditional Marwari family of six children, Leena grew up finding joy in the the smallest of things, and imbibing a deep underlying thread of unquestionable acceptance of what the elders asked her to do.

After finishing college relatively early, she pursued a number of diploma courses in subjects she liked including a one-year course in Advertising and, later, Photography.

Camera and art become a constant

These courses were a turning point in Leena’s life. “I was like a sponge who wanted to take in as much as possible. Much later, after I had been married and had my children, I picked up my camera again. My camera became my creative outlet. It gave me the opportunity to feel free of any dos and don’ts and made me free of any role I was playing - whether of a daughter, a wife, a daughter-in-law. My camera and my art soon became the constant in life, which brought beauty and a sense of self-worth. The power of my art slowly helped me mould my life, and it has helped me create Missing. It enabled me to create a language that can talk about the plight of millions of girls who live a life of no choice because of the deep patriarchal structure in our society,” she says.

However, the artist did not begin her career with Missing. Leena did a bit of studio portraiture, and her first assignment was for a book cover on the essence of Kolkata. Her early morning escapades into the city,  walking on the fresh dew grass, capturing the fog in the Maidan, capturing the flight of the birds on its ghats, and ​the colours of the flower market​ left her wanting more.

The power of images

An installation from Missing

By then, Leena had made considerable progress as a photographer and installation artist. But the images of her childhood - of the girls at Sonagachi remained in her mind.

“It was much later as a photographer, during one of my walks in the city, that I first entered a red light district. I entered with an open heart, not the curiosity which the place holds for many. The empathy was there, but something urged me to do something beyond it. After that first visit to Kalighat, I had multiple opportunities to visit and help my friends, who ran NGOs, in whatever manner I could.” she says.

What Leena really found disheartening was that the flow of girls entering these areas didn’t stop. “I saw my friends struggle with empowerment and education of the ladies and the girls there, but new ones kept coming in. The root cause we all saw was the demand. It was simple economics. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. The demand adds to the lucrativeness of it; hence traffickers move in to supply the girls and make a lot of money,” she adds.

Awareness and engagement

An awareness session

Out of her deep empathy and artistic sensibilities arose Missing. She dealt with the issue by creating complicated installations within gallery spaces that brought up the dark realities of sex trafficking in a very graphic way. But this, she felt, did not seem right.

“To create mass awareness, I realised I needed to distil the issue into a simple, engaging piece of art that spoke to everyone and transcended language and space. That is when my public art project Missing emerged, and was finally launched to great reviews at the India Art Fair in January 2014.”

What is Missing? It is both awareness against trafficking for sex and engagement to provide knowledge as arsenal to children, women, young girls and boys so that they can avoid becoming victims of trafficking.

Leena says, “Parallelly, through all our engagement, we want to have an undercurrent running across our programmes that mind shapes the young males in India into de-objectifying the female human body and creating more sensitive and empathic youth towards gender differences. Further, it would also create a more compassionate view of the victims of sex trafficking. One of the last key things is also to create an environment among young girls where they declutter their concept of femininity, which is currently overridden by the masculine gaze.”

This is done through campaigns and primary insights gained through data trends.

Technology to the rescue

Awareness through art

Awareness is also raised through the Missing app, developed along with Satyajit Chakraborty of the Flying Robot Studios.  Leena explains, “We created a unique role-playing game designed to allow players to experience what a missing person goes through when she is trafficked into the dark world of prostitution; a world into which millions of girls are lost every year. The players assume the role of the missing person, making choices and assessing risks for themselves to find their way to the elusive freedom.”

The challenge however has been to install public artwork on sex trafficking as part of Missing. “Though we had such great reviews, and people across the world who had recognised our project, I haven’t yet been able to get the private-public collaboration to install them. I have chosen this interim time to strengthen the ground- level awareness work in urban and rural India through a school programme that is moving ahead systematically,” Leena says.

She also recounts painful stories of survivors of sex trafficking. Whether it was Rehana who was forcibly taken to Mumbai or Aishwarya to Delhi’s infamous GB Road, the intervention by NGOs ensured efforts for their rescue waswas swift.

Not all girls are rescued like Rehana and Aishwarya. And that’s why it’s important for Rehana to continue on in her mission.

“I am working in the remote Sundarbans area, which accounts for 44 percent of India’s trafficking victims. The prevention programme there is two-pronged - awareness building and an empowerment centre, and we have seen good results in the last quarter. We hope to expand on that and provide options of sustainable livelihood along with a deeper understanding of their rights and options along with regular counselling,” Leena explains.

With Missing, Leena is effectively using art and technology to create awareness. She believes Awareness = Prevention. And marches forward with the motto, ‘why wait for a girl to get trafficked to save her’.

Why, indeed!