MUMBAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–When Australian freelance journalist Wendy Champagne ran across a 16-year-old trafficking survivor while researching a story for a magazine assignment, her path to making "Bas! Beyond Red Light" began.
The film tells the story of young Nepalese women who have escaped brothel life and are fighting to stop the trafficking of Nepalese to India.
Champagne was inspired by Geeta, a young woman only identified by her first name who showed extraordinary resilience after being rescued.
"Most girls would prefer to forget such an experience," Champagne said. "Geeta was different. After she was rescued and eventually sent back to Kathmandu she was determined to bring her traffickers to justice."
Geeta lived for a year at a shelter run by a nongovernmental group called Maiti Nepal. After she left there, she kept looking for the traffickers.
"After a year she spotted one and immediately informed the police," said Champagne. "Later, she even managed to track down the other two and did the round of the courts to bring them to justice. Then she returned to the brothel in Mumbai, took a job with the Rescue Foundation, an organization that rescues girls from brothels, and also tracked down the brothel keeper who had exploited her so cruelly."
The film was part of a multimedia event, which included films, videos, plays, music and paintings, displayed at a gallery here May 19 to June 2 and organized by Freedom to Create, a Singapore-based arts advocacy group.
Geeta’s own trafficking ordeal began in Kathmandu, Nepal, when she was 13 and working at a Catholic-run school that took care of babies.
"There she befriended two men, who later introduced her to their ‘sisters,’" Champagne said in a recent interview.
One of those women asked Geeta to help her take care of her two children at her own home. There, Champagne said, she was drugged. "A few days later she found herself in New Delhi. She was sold to a brothel in Turbhe in Navi Mumbai. It was two years before she was rescued."
Four Years to Complete
Champagne’s film about the work of trafficking survivors took more than four years to complete. In addition to screenings at international festivals for general audiences, it is being used for education, training and fundraising for projects to benefit rescued girls and young women.
She says the biggest obstacle came from traffickers and brothel owners in red light districts who didn’t like her camera.
"It was dangerous and we had to enlist the help of a local politician at times. But my interest as a filmmaker was to let the girls tell their stories, rather than depict the sordid life in the brothels. So to that end I received a lot of cooperation from the girls and the Rescue Foundation," Champagne said.
The work of Laura Boushnak, a Palestinian photographer born in Kuwait, was also featured in the show.
Her pictures depict Egyptian women attending literacy classes in suburban Cairo. She worked through a nongovernmental group charged by the Education Ministry with implementing a nine-month program for women between the ages of 15 and 45.
"Egypt was among many countries that signed the UN Millennium Goals," said Boushnak, referring to global promises that nations have made to improve living standards in some of the world’s most impoverished countries. "One of the goals is the eradication of illiteracy."
She said she approached the project with high expectations, thinking that participants would be aiming, eventually, for higher education. What she found instead were women who just wanted help coping with daily life.
"Like the woman who used to get lost in the maze of public transport and wanted to be able to understand written directions. Another wanted to learn how to count money so vegetable vendors couldn’t cheat her. Yet another wanted to read the doctor’s prescription so that she gave the right medicine to her son," she said.
The Power of Men
Boushnak said the goal of the classes was to help women raise their children in a better way. "All the participants agreed on one thing: They would ensure their children finished school."
Boushnak never met the men in these women’s lives, but she sensed their power. "Before I started taking the photos most of the women had to seek permission from the male member in the family – husband or father."
She said organizers of the project told her that some male family members cut the women off once they learn to read. "They see their education as a threat."
Another featured photographer was American journalist Lynsey Addario. Nothing can prepare the viewer for her at-once gruesome and heartrending pictures of women who had set themselves on fire to escape their terrible lives.
Released in March from captivity in Libya, along with her three other colleagues from The New York Times, Addario has won a Pulitzer Prize for her work in Afghanistan and other war-ravaged countries.
"Hundreds of women in Afghanistan attempt self-immolation in a bid to escape abusive husbands or the daily situations," Addario said. "Several young women see no other means of escape from their predicament."
Photographing women in this ultra-conservative country is difficult as they are often shielded from view and forbidden to interact with outsiders or talk about their private moments. In visits to several centers that provide basic burn treatment, she met up doctors and nurses working hard to save these women.
Another showcased woman was Salome, a female rapper from Iran. Salome doesn’t ask for anyone’s sympathy. In the Freedom to Create catalog, she writes: "I am not going to complain about how it is hard to be a female rapper in Iran." She wants to be known for her lyrics, which focus on social injustice, war, female empowerment and peace.
Lovetta Conto, a Liberian who grew up in a refugee camp in Ghana, was also featured for her work transforming bullets and shells into jewelry. Conto fled Liberia after she lost her family to the country’s long civil war.
She melts and recasts spent bullets and engraves the jewelry she forges with a simple inscription: LIFE.
This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to: http://www.wfsnews.org.
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Surekha Kadapa-Bose is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She writes extensively on women’s rights, the environment and films.