by Sue Ann Rybak
After reading “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” written by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Germantown resident Julie Rosen said she felt compelled to act after reading the book and learning more about “modern day slavery and the trafficking of girls.”
The book sheds light on what it calls “atrocities and indignities from sex trafficking to maternal mortality, from obstetric fistulas to acid attacks.”
Stories like that of 15-year-old Srey Rath, a Cambodian girl, who, lured by the promises of employment, was abducted and sold to gangsters who operated a brothel. When she refused to cooperate and fought off customers, her boss explained the situation.
“‘You have to serve the customers,’ the boss told her as he punched her. ‘If not, we will beat you to death. Do you want that?'”
The boss forced her to take a pill that her captors referred to as “the happy drug” or “shake drug.”
The drug made her drowsy and made her head shake. It induced a temporarily state of euphoria and forced her to be compliant for about an hour. When she wasn’t drugged, she was forced to “beam happily at all customers.” If she defied him, he said he would kill her. Rath and the other girls were forced to work in the brothel seven days a week, 15 hours a day.
In order to prevent them from running away, they were kept naked and given very little food.
The book goes onto say that “they were battered until they smiled constantly and simulated joy at the sight of customers, because men would not pay as much for sex with girls with reddened eyes and haggard faces. The girls were never allowed out on the street or paid a penny for their work.”
Rosen, formerly of Mt. Airy, who is a mother of a 10-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son, couldn’t imagine any of her children having to endure such atrocities.
“The sex industry is estimated to be exploiting as many as three million children each year as slaves, with girls making up 98 percent of its victims,” she said. “Modern day slavery and the trafficking of girls, in particular, has become something that I think about a lot and can’t sit with. It feels right and necessary to do something about it – no matter how small.”
She said The Freedom Gallery for Girls is a unique project that enlists artists “to create art about and in support of the strength and freedom of girls.”
“Freedom Gallery for Girls artists are taking action to raise awareness, incite action and garner funds to support change in response to this crisis,” said Rosen, an arts educator, who has worked with Buildabridge, Spiral Q and other art-based community organizations. “While respecting the gravity of the human rights tragedy that is child sexual slavery, the work in this exhibition delivers a message of hope, pointing to the dignity, worth and potential of girls.”
This inaugural exhibition features 15 accomplished artists from Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York, including an acrylic painting by Tremain Smith, a piece by Rachel Bliss and digital photographs by Nancy Bea Miller.
Mt. Airy resident Davi Chandrasekaran, 40, who is also a special education teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, is just one of the local artists participating in the exhibit.
“When Julie approached me, I immediately said ‘Yes,’” she said. “As a mother of two young girls, my husband and I are constantly trying to provide them with a healthy and happy childhood. One of the things that really touched me about this organization, as well as the creation of this exhibit, is that it is shedding light on an issue that is so important – and so difficult to talk about.”
Chandrasekaran said it provided her with the opportunity to sit down with her children to help them understand how fortunate they are and that they have a responsibility to, if possible, make things better for whose who may be in need.
She created two pieces of art made from fabric for the show both have a very personal connection to her and her family.
“I took silk scraps from my girls’ baby clothes that were made in India,” said Chandrasekaran, who was born in India. “All of these scraps were sewn together with gold thread in kind of a quilt fashion and is presented on an oval shaped loom frame.And to me, that shows that all these different scraps, torn and worn, can indeed be sewn together and that something beautiful can come from even traumatic experiences.
“It teaches us more about [the importance of] healing and how we begin to bind to one another through our experiences and how we begin to fall into place into one another’s lives. These scraps were all made in India and many of the teenage girls who are being held are from India and Pakistan, so I felt that this was very symbolic of the Asian Culture.”
Chandrasekaran has seen firsthand how infant girls are often cast aside solely based on their sex.
“I had the tremendous opportunity to teach special education in India,” she said. “In 1997, I had the opportunity to work with Mother Theresa in the orphanage for children with disabilities. Many of the girl babies were there not because they were disabled or that they had anything particularly wrong with them, but because the orphanage was a safe haven.
“The tremendous opportunity to see and help children with disabilities – in my country of birth – who were not only alive, but educated and thriving within my own lifetime was amazing. Thanks to organizations like Freedom Gallery – those who are underserved are beginning to get services they need.”
Glynnis Reed, 39, of Atlantic City, said she decided to participate in the project because “it was a wonderful way to use my art as an activist tool on issues of sexual assault and exploitation of women and girls.”
She quoted Rosen’s words to her that “art can promote social change by the way it can harness the powers of compassion and creativity to assert and support women and girls.”
Reed, an elementary school teacher in Atlantic City, said, “art provides an outlet for young people.”
“It can be very affirming,” she said. “It helps build self-confidence and gives people a voice. I think that the issue of sexual assault and sexual exploitation is such a major issue in our society today. My hope is that in the process of building awareness and healing we can actively do things that can prevent and heal this type of oppression.”
“The Freedom Gallery For Girls: Art supporting the Strength and Freedom of Girls Globally” will be on display from July 5 to August 1 at Gryphon Cafe, 105 Lancaster Ave. in Wayne. An opening reception will be held on July 9 from 6 to 8 p.m. In addition, an art-making workshop will be held on July 23 from 4 to 6 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.
Fifty percent of sales proceeds will be donated to Room to Read and Apne Aap, NGOs selected for their success in targeting prevention through education and restoration through survivor services and advocacy respectively.
Rosen hopes to continue to curate a series of local shows while building a larger collection activating a community of participants through outreach, social media and exhibition. If you would like to participate in future exhibitions or contribute to the growth of this project, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.