Art as Social Action in Overpowering Sex Slavery

Written by Mikarla Teague

The plane wheels hit the tarmac brusquely upon a dry and humid Cambodian eve in May, the squeaks and brakes coming to an abrupt halt at its final destination of Siem Reap’s International Airport. Boots stepping enthusiastically onto the tarmac, the impenetrable warm air whipped up accustomed sensorial smells of warmth and familiarity of a bustling city that had become to feel like another home to me. After almost a year apart, I was back in Cambodia to exclusively reconnect with Free To Shine, a profoundly unique and dynamic human rights organisation that aims to educate and protect young girls in countries where sex trafficking is prevalent, offering the women an open door of opportunity and empowerment. They are driven passionately by the moral belief that girls belong in school, not in brothels. Their passionate drive and enthusiasm for their mission is infectious, and has become immensely significant to my heart - its mission, the incredible team, and the girls, tug at my thoughts and heartstrings ceaselessly.

Come Monday morning at first light, an impending excitement lingered within my ribcage as I unpacked the last load of art supplies from my tuk tuk at the entrance to Shine Central, Free To Shine’s primary headquarters in Siem Reap. Greeted enthusiastically by a bustling room of familiar welcoming smiles and excited chatter, thrusting phones towards me excitedly showing off new baby additions, wedding videos, and vacation shots, the FTS team have become like extended family to me. These remarkable individuals utterly warm my heart. The Free To Shine team comprises of an assortment of young, energetic and articulate Cambodian University students, with varying strengths and abilities – It is prevalent how passionate they are about this work, and their defiant vision to overpower sex slavery amid these communities.Bounding down the stairs to greet me with an always warm smile and arms open wide, arrived Free To Shine founder and CEO Nicky Mih, an unbelievably empowering and strong woman with a deliciously gentile nature and knowing smile, Nicky is the progressive brain child and back bone of FTS. EOO’s, Sohin, Seiha, and Ratana, three passionate and energetic new additions to the team spilled outside into the awaiting tuk tuk, joined closely by Lizzy, the newest Australian addition to the Cambodian team. Lizzy courageously took a leap of faith, and voluntarily packed up her life back in Australia and moved to Cambodia to assist in the coordination of the Headquarters on the ground, this is an example of the tremendous passion and dedication that feeds the FTS livelihood.

Collectively wedged into our tuk tuk, an overlapping of perspiring limbs, bags, art supplies and giggles abound, we embarked early on todays long and arduous journey in an attempt to escape the midday heat, first making the requisite pit stop at the local fresh produce market to garner food for our girls. A welcomed delight for the senses of bustle and movement, cooking smoke stinging the eyes, opening the nasal passages, making way for a compendium of smells, consisting of spiced tiny water snails, fresh pork buns, curry pastes, contrasted by the delectable visuals of colorful spices, questionable meats, pickled fruits and vegetables, coconut milks and shells.This year has been particularly difficult for Cambodians, the rice fields are perilously barren, the villages are running dangerously low on water, and the extreme heat has lead to consistent black outs, leaving large grids of Siem Reap’s bustling city in humid darkness for days on end. Not only is this disruptive for individuals, but disruptive for business and livelihood. As we journeyed along the unsteady terrain of the dirt road, our eyes collectively squinted in guard of the sun, glancing out we stared helplessly as the humidity glistened on the stripped rice fields, barely a green tree or piece of shade in sight. You cannot help but feel powerless and defeatist for the village’s apparent struggles. A collective silence fell within the tuk tuk.

Rolling up to our destined rural village, we arrive at a desolate school. There are few children lingering within the shade surrounding the grounds, barely a soul in sight. Feeling slightly depleted, Nicky, myself and the team knows all too well, that as much as we can provide these enrichment programs, survival must always come first within these communities. If there is food to forage and gather, water to collect, work opportunities to provide sustenance to their families, this will always understandably overpower education. I was recently conflicted to learn that a young girl who was present at one of my preceding art classes, had been missing substantial amounts of school. Instead, she was being sent into the forest every day to find eatable leaves, nuts and fruits for her family. Her father had disappeared, leaving the mother with a 2 month old, and three children to feed. To add to the heartbreaking struggle, the baby was not feeding. Nicky and the team equipped the young girl with two large plastic bags of food from the market, but regrettably this will only go so far, a common example of the daily struggles of these families, and the battles the FTS team face to keep these young girls in school, and subsequently out of the brothels.As we paced the empty humid classroom, deliberating our next movement, small curious faces began to appear through the grids in the windows, coupled with giggles and wide smiles. One at a time we welcomed in the girls, handing them a piece of paper and their very own set of oil pastels, as they tentatively found seats at tiny desks. News had traveled throughout the villages that we were at the school conducting an art class, and before we new it; over 80 buzzing young women of various ages and a welcomed trickle of inquisitive young boys were packed into the sweltering humid classroom, art materials eagerly in hand at the ready.

My successive return to Cambodia and the Free To Shine organization is fuelled by my passion and admiration for the progressive angles and avenues FTS takes in its implementation and mission in assisting in the empowerment of these young women. Nicky is one of few Charity Director trailblazers who passionately understands my work and the subsequent unique power of Art as a form of communication, empowerment, and change, particularly in the unique environment that is Cambodia and its history. One aspect worth stating that I have noticed through my vocation on the ground in Cambodia, is that no matter how much I focus on building trust with individuals through various therapeutic Art Therapy activities and exercises - as soon as the girls finish their artwork, they are quick to turn the piece of paper over in front of them, unsure and hesitant to share their creation. Dare I say afraid to? I have encountered this through various villages, schools and communities right across Cambodia. A number of the girls are particularly non-verbal, this isn’t because of lack of speaking skills, quite often their Khmer and English is profoundly articulate, but perhaps rather its a deep-seeded undercurrent of suppression and fear of expression that trails back down through Cambodian historical lineage.From 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot embarked on an organised mission, to ruthlessly impose an extremist program to reconstruct the communist model of Mao's China. The population must, they believed, be made to work as laborers in one large federation of collective farms. Anyone in opposition, all intellectuals and educated people (or individuals assumed to be) were exterminated. Disgracefully, 25% of Cambodia’s population was mass eradicated due to starvation, overwork and horrific executions. Voluminous amounts of artists along with painters, musicians, writers and filmmakers were executed. Any form of self-expression was strictly forbidden, or otherwise greeted with death. Cambodia’s injustice is just one example of a recurring historical blue plan where the most terrible things, whether it be war, genocide or slavery have resulted not of disobedience, but obedience.Could this traumatizing and somber event in Cambodia’s dark past potentially seep into the present-day interactions and ways of life, an ingrained stain that lingers clandestinely in reticence? No one can know for certain. However, Nicky and the FTS team are all too acutely aware of this considerable protective barrier and hesitance to express and divulge that occasionally restricts the EOO’s from discovering relevant information about the girls, their personal and home situations, health conditions, their school life, or any other outside influences that may be concerning or stressing the young girls. Through the successful implementation of Art activities like todays journey, the FTS team are able to gain valuable insights into the inner worlds of the girls through employing the artworks as a centre point for visual representation and conversational tools.

Art is a true gatekeeper to communication and greater clarity and understanding of the individuals wants, dreams and needs. When words fail, Art therapies are often a conduit to the hearts and minds of individuals who cannot verbalize their emotions. In such cases, the Arts can open a back door to the psyche, drawing from individuals that which they cannot yet put into words, thus catalyzing subsequent therapeutic conversations. Through my passion and my work developing Art programs for human rights organisations, mental health institutions, and through personal experience with my own one on one clients, I can say with great confidence that Creative Arts involving visual art, music, dance and movement, drama, and poetry, to facilitate therapeutic goals is a profoundly ground breaking and effective tool in developing greater understanding, empathy and clarity for both individuals, and those that care for them.We live in an incredibly visual modern day society; 80% of sensory stimuli enters through our eyes and goes into our brains where it’s retained visually, nonverbally. Most of us think, feel, and recall memories not in words but in imagery. These images become a verbal language when we attempt to communicate what is going on in our mind to someone else. When an individual’s unconscious is privileged through the use of art media and facilitation, floodgates open on an unconscious level for the individual for express themselves.Facilitating a “check in” art exercise, through asking the girls to visually express their goals and dreams for the future, I noticed one of the young women writing in plain as day English. I kneeled down beside her, smiling, attempting to catch a glimpse of what she had wrote. Goosebumps ensued at what lay before me. "I want to make library and hospital in my village" the words read. For a young at risk/ survivor of sex slavery to have such direct, focused, selfless and ambitious goals, when it has been stoically ingrained into her that her life exists merely to produce children, be subservient to her husband, and manage the home - was POWERFUL, and must not be ignored. I called Nicky over to take a look. Within seconds, Nicky arranged for the girl to have 20 books, and a notepad to keep record of the books and their loans. If after a month the books are still in good condition, we will add a further 10 books, and so on. BOOM! Dreams come true, and a library was created within a faraway village, now providing them with access to free education, creative imagination, stimulation and growth. I believe in this work.

Free To Shine have cultivated an independent charitable model, providing the support, tools and resources for Free To Shine to run independently on the ground. It’s immeasurable the importance of Free To Shine’s work, and how incredibly well they’re implementing their objectives and support into communities and villages within Cambodia to make sure that at risk and endangered little girls are protected, receiving a quality education, staying in school, integrating creative and artistic curriculum, having empowering future prospects, and ultimately keeping out of the hands of brothels and human traffickers. Additionally with the integration of these artistic and creative implementations, FTS has permitted and discovered a successful progressive avenue for the EOO’s to intercept what is going on within these girls’ family situations, as it is delivered through the hands and eyes of babes. Additionally, serving as a powerful tool for telling stories, confidence building, enrichment, and permission for joy and happiness in a safe and empowered setting.One thing I know with great certainty is that Art exposes and helps resolve issues of social justice. As a cultural tool, Art helps humanize and actualize the emotions, grievances, and fears of those who may not have another place to voice concerns. It would be easy for one to dismiss Art as unwarranted, as unnecessary, a waste of money and resources when compared with the poverty, ills and social injustices ever-present around the world. If you did this, you would be missing the point of art.