India’s ‘dark holes’ where millions of girls disappear

India’s ‘dark holes’ where millions of girls disappear

Kolkata, India  – A walk down the narrow, labyrinthine lanes of Kalighat reveals a new kind of graffiti splashed across its walls. Life-size silhouettes of young girls pop up at every turn of this bustling Kolkata neighbourhood, better known for its Kali temple and the city’s oldest red-light district.

This is no ordinary graffiti. It is a part of Leena Kejriwal’s public art project, MISSING, through which volunteers are stencilling public spaces across the country to create awareness about the girls who vanish mysteriously from their homes, schools or workplaces, and are trafficked into sex work.

“The silhouettes represent dark holes into which millions of girls have disappeared, never to be found again,” said Kejriwal, a Kolkata-based photographer and installation artist, who over the past decade has worked with various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that rescue sex-trafficked women and help rehabilitate them

A 2008 United Nations report in collaboration with the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development revealed that there are three million commercial sex workers in India, of which an estimated 40 percent are children.

“The numbers are astounding, but what upsets me immensely is that girls between nine and 12 are most vulnerable to trafficking,” Kejriwal told Al Jazeera.

“How many Indians are aware of that?” she asked.

For many years, her art projects tried to address that ignorance. But she realised that showcasing her work in galleries wasn’t allowing her to reach a broad audience with her message.

That is when the idea of a public art project was born.

‘We cannot remain passive’

It began in January last year, when Kejriwal created four-and-a-half-metre-tall iron and fibreglass installations of missing girls for India Art Fair, one of the country’s most popular art exhibitions in New Delhi. The response was powerful.

“People found the issue both sad and scary and were shocked by its enormity,” Kejriwal said.

“There were reactions like ‘eye-opening’ and ‘jaw-dropping’ and they were horrified to learn that sex trafficking is such a flourishing business in the country,” she added. “Most people realised that we cannot remain passive about the problem any more.”

To create more figures for other Indian cities, Kejriwal crowd-funded more than 1.6 million rupees (about $24,000) through Wishberry in June and July.

While those installations are being prepared, the message is being taken nationwide through stencil art. With help from students, artists and young girls rescued from traffickers, the shadows of missing girls have been painted on more than 200 walls in nine Indian cities, including Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Bangalore

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