Image taken by Flickr user guercio

From Aristophanes’ anti-war activism in Lysistrata in 411 BC, to Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939 against lynching and racism, to Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Problem We all Live With’ in 1964, a painting of a six-year-old African American girl in New Orleans being escorted into an all-white school by US marshals with a racist word scrawled on the wall above her head—the “arts have been a key factor in motivating us to be the best parts of ourselves.”

So opened—almost in one breath—Simone Monasebian, Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in New York, at a panel I attended on the ‘Role of the Arts in Helping to Combat Human Trafficking’, held at UN Headquarters last month as part of the annual Commission on the Status of Women conference. The room was packed: I managed to steal a seat in a dark corner, one of the last as the floors filled up with audience members sitting cross legged, while others had to be turned away so as not to violate the fire code.

“Art is one of the most powerful advocacy tools,” she continued, noting that for this reason, her UN agency has been increasingly working with artists to influence perceptions and understanding through storytelling. She and other panelists agreed that the arts, and film in particular, are especially helpful in spreading awareness of human rights issues by reaching wider audiences than what NGOs can reach on their own. For example, UNODC Goodwill Ambassador and actress Mira Sorvino in 2012 starred in and promoted the film Trade of Innocents, which works to expose the reality of child trafficking in Cambodia. The film’s preview screening was dedicated to the UN Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking, which collects donations to support legal, humanitarian and financial assistance to victims of trafficking.

According to UNODC, human trafficking affects every country in the world. Due to the complications of compiling statistics on illegal activities, there is no estimate of the numbers of victims, though they are believed to be high. A search through the organization’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014, the last year for which data is available, confirms that very little is known. However, among the report’s few concrete findings, we do see that trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation occurs in 79 percent of cases, followed by forced labor at 18 percent. Child trafficking accounts for more than 30 percent of the total number of cases worldwide.

Other panelists included Ambassador Katalin Bogyay, permanent representative of Hungary to the United Nations; Gillian Anderson of ‘The X-Files’ fame and anti-human trafficking activist starring in the movie Sold, about the trafficking of Nepalese girl in India; the film’s director Jeffrey Brown; and Sarah Porter, director of development and partnerships at ECPAT, and NGO that works to end child prostitution at the source.

Ambassador Bogyay was most expressive in her hopes for what the arts can do: “Art can empower us to be bold,” she said, adding that “poetry and art can save us because through them we can transform ourselves into compassionate beings.” Anderson was even more unequivocal. “This film can end trafficking,” she told the audience, referring to Sold, and highlighted the need to “wake up to the fact that [human trafficking] is in our backyards today” and that “there are more slaves alive today than in the history of the planet.”

However, other NGOs working on human trafficking caution against such optimism for the power of the arts. “Approaches like Nick Kristof or Mira Sorvino, which really prioritize this rescue or savior mentality are incredibly problematic for trying to address human trafficking,” said Kate D’Adamo, a national policy advocate and organizer in an interview for the New York Anti-Trafficking Network (NYATN). She explained that this method often ends up calling attention to the heroics of anti-trafficking activists rather than focusing on survivors and their needs. This attitude is illustrated for example by the 2008 movie Taken, in which an ex-CIA agent (Liam Neeson) must rely on his training to rescue his daughter after she is kidnapped by human traffickers for sexual slavery. “The focus on the rescuer takes away from the survivor so they’re no longer in control of their own narrative,” said Suzanne Tomatore, an attorney specializing in immigration and who is also a member of NYATN, in a recent phone conversation. What’s more, is that such movies “are very over the top and don’t reflect what we see day to day,” she continued. While it is true that anyone can be kidnapped and forced into slavery, including the daughters of ex-CIA agents, one of the issues films like Taken ignore, is the fact that human trafficking is not just about sexual slavery, and that forced labor is also common.

But addressing the problem at its root is not at all straightforward when the root is a structural phenomenon of society, such as poverty or inequality.

Other industry professionals agree with D’Adamo and Tomatore. “There’s always awareness raising for people who may never have heard of trafficking, but it also perpetuates a lot of myths if not done in a realistic way,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in a recent phone conversation. Yet she conceded that “people who focus on upholding human rights tend to be academics, lawyers—people who have a hard time communicating what they’re doing to the general public. So it’s really important for us as human rights activists to link with the creative branches of society because they have the ability to communicate in a way that’s accessible and emotional to people who don’t dedicate their lives to human rights.”

Another challenge for the arts as activism is that, according to the philosophies of NYATN and other non-profits working against human trafficking, prevention is far preferable to prosecuting perpetrators, helping survivors reclaim their lives, or even raising awareness. But addressing the problem at its root is not at all straightforward when the root is a structural phenomenon of society, such as poverty or inequality.

“Rarely do we talk about anyone who’s engaged in a trafficking situation where the problems that they face began that day,” D’Adamo said. “Often we’re talking about people who’ve faced a range of issues around poverty, around homelessness, around economic and food instability. And so it’s important to remember that the best and most important anti-trafficking work is economic justice work.”

In such a scenario, what is the confluence of art and activism if not the experience of casting our gaze directly, uncomfortably, and ultimately, unbearably, unto that which we most abhor?

But, I wondered, if prevention is the most effective means of combating human trafficking—in what way can the arts support that? If we look back to Lysistrata, the premise of this comedy—where the women of Athens unite to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands in order to end the Peloponnesian war—rests on the very crucial point that the war was already in full swing. Similarly, ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘The Problem We All Live With’ took their power from events that had already occurred—lynchings, school segregation. In a similar vein, Spike Lee’s contemporary version of Lysistrata, Chi-raq, which came out in 2015, relies on the ready-made imagery of gun violence in Chicago. In all of these cases, the resulting work of art cannot exist without the prior event. If this is the premise of art as activism, it becomes clear that the act of preventing a human right violation from occurring in the first place cannot hold the same mobilizing power that art requires in order to capture the attention of a wide audience. In such a scenario, what is the confluence of art and activism if not the experience of casting our gaze directly, uncomfortably, and ultimately, unbearably, unto that which we most abhor?

The panel did not directly address this question, but it seems to me that art can nevertheless be wielded in a more subtle form, one that does not necessarily need to rely on shocking images. For example, Sold director Jeffrey Brown said the release of the film—which premiered on 1 April—coincided with a number of partnerships between the film’s artistic team and organizations involved in combating human trafficking in India, Nepal and in the United States. These include preventative measures such as keeping children in school through educational and school infrastructure projects. In particular, the creation of Sold, led to a partnership with the NGO Taught Not Trafficked, which works with vulnerable Nepalese children to ensure they complete their secondary schooling. This is because, as Brown noted, keeping a child in school until the age of sixteen reduces the chances of child trafficking by 80 percent.

It is the nature of prevention that its successes can never be fully measured.

Another important initiative is Girl Be Heard, a theater company that runs educational programs in underserved areas of New York City and aimed at raising awareness of social justice issues such as sex trafficking. Their play Trafficked, depicts the lives of fifteen young women who have been sold into sex trafficking around the globe, and has evolved over time to encompass emerging trends or accommodate the target audience—whether students at a local school or the UN. Tiff Roma, who works as Artistic Associate at Girl Be Heard and was among the original cast members of the show when it premiered in 2010, said it was commissioned by ECPAT to raise awareness of human trafficking. Since then, she told me, the performance has taken different shapes, from linear play to monologue, but that always it is geared towards “using the human experience to analyze and promote change, because if we understand the issue, we can work towards a solution.” Most of all, Trafficked is aimed at amplifying the voices of those who cannot otherwise make themselves heard, and showing that when it comes to young women encountering manipulation, deceit or limited choices in life, there are few who can’t say, as Roma put it, “really, simply, that could have been me.”

It is the nature of prevention that its successes can never be fully measured. But it seems clear that regardless of the intent—whether to shock into action after abuses have been committed, or preventing the abuses in the first place—art can play a decisively positive role. It can galvanize the formation of partnerships between organizations that are making a real difference on the ground, and Hollywood actors whose involvement brings attention to the cause and much needed donations. It can keep underprivileged children motivated and able to stay in school through innovative projects.

It can also help to change the very laws that still turn a blind eye to human trafficking. Organizations like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and the New York Anti-Trafficking Network are working to change a legal framework that has so far failed to properly address the demand side of human trafficking—which primarily involves sex trade patrons.

“Changing laws takes time, as does changing public attitudes,” said Bien-Aimé. For this to work, she said, the true story needs to be told. “That’s why it’s important to have writers and musicians examine society in a way that reflects the realities and that inspires people to take action.”

Elettra Pauletto

Since receiving her MFA from Columbia University, Elettra Pauletto has divided her time between writing about her life and work in Africa–including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Senegal–and translating works of fiction and nonfiction from Italian and French into English. In both her writing and translations, she draws heavily on her experience as a former political risk analyst covering Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

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