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The row, row, row theory of life

Leena Kejriwal's obsession with trafficking gathered momentum when her public art project was previewed at the India Art Fair in 2014

Leena Kejriwal, who started the MISSING campaign to fight trafficking of Indian girls. Photo: Getty Images
Leena Kejriwal, who started the MISSING campaign to fight trafficking of Indian girls. Photo: Getty Images

Leena Kejriwal has been banging her head against the same wall with the resilience of a hard-headed pachycephalosaurus for several years now. She uses art and technology—and everything in between—to crack a particularly vile problem: the trafficking of Indian girls.

“Don’t be a good girl, be a smart girl," the founder of the MISSING campaign, a former good girl from a traditional Marwari household herself, now tells vulnerable children. Like with rape, the data shows that most girls are kidnapped and sold by family members and people they know. Kejriwal tells girls about teenagers like J, 14, who didn’t think twice when her aunt told her they were going to the big city. Kejriwal teaches girls how to say no.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 8,132 human trafficking cases in 2016 against 6,877 in 2015, but experts say these figures grossly underestimate the problem. Separate international studies have shown that Asia is one of the fastest-growing regions for human trafficking in the world and that one-third of the world’s child brides are from India. Earlier this year, the government estimated that some 21 million girls are “unwanted"—their parents prefer to have children “until the desired number of sons are born".

Kejriwal’s obsession with trafficking gathered momentum when her public art project, an iron and steel silhouette of a larger than life girl symbolizing a black hole into which millions of girls just disappear every year—starting with sex selective abortions—was previewed at the India Art Fair in 2014.

But after the show, these impressive installations remained in the foundry and a more practical, lightweight stencil—at least 4ft high—and cans of black spray paint took over. Thousands of girls have been spray-painted on our cities’ walls for one and a half years now. Kejriwal’s website,, encourages you to download the stencil kit and print it on flex before tracing it on a board and spray-painting it on a city wall. Next to the silhouette you’ll often spot the number 1098, the government’s emergency helpline for children. The public art project won a social entrepreneurship for change award from the Digital Empowerment Foundation last month.

The first time Kejriwal entered a brothel in Kalighat in 2002, it was to shoot some images for a coffee-table book on Kolkata. As the team was walking down the stairs, she spotted an emerald-green sari looped on a closed door, flying in the wind, against a cherry wall, its colour indicating it was a red-light district. The sari was a sign that the room’s occupant was busy and should not be disturbed. Kejriwal slowed her step, and used the last shot on her 35mm camera to take what eventually became the book’s cover.

In her past life, Kejriwal was like any other artist, using photographs and dramatic installations of jute, wire and rope to recreate the city. In her first solo show in 2010, East City, red-light districts and trafficking occupied one wall, but several shows and two years later, in When Violence Becomes Decadent, at a Berlin art gallery, the artist couldn’t see beyond trafficking. “Decadent because you are giving into your most base instinct even if it means squashing another person in that process, just because of their size and their inability to fight back," Kejriwal tells me when we meet.

The art shows were well received but she felt something missing. “I kept thinking I’m still not talking in a language everyone can understand," Kejriwal says. Brainstorming with curators, and a stint at a residency, helped her come up with the idea of the silhouette.

If art is one route to effect social change, gaming is another. Last year she raised $50,795 (around 34.55 lakh now) from 455 backers on Kickstarter to create a second MISSING game (available for Android/iOS/PC). The first role-playing game, released in 2016, put players in the shoes of a missing girl, and was downloaded half a million times in less than a year. More importantly, it came to the notice of the international gaming community.

“As a game, it’s a bit rough…and the mechanics can feel a bit tacked on and gamey…. But the message itself comes across loud and clear. The game makes you uncomfortable to play it, and even the imperfections, like lack of transition between certain phases of the game, only add to the idea of loss and misery," Brandon Sheffield, director at Necrosoft Games, wrote in a review.

He listed it as one of his top 5 indie-game favourites not from America. Kejriwal and Sheffield became friends and it was thanks to his mentoring that she raised that enviable sum of money to develop a second game.

Her organization now works with young girls in ground zero of India’s trafficking zone, West Bengal, which accounted for 44% of reported human trafficking cases in 2016. Kejriwal mentors girls, and wants to launch anti-trafficking clubs in high schools and colleges because that’s the best place to influence tomorrow’s demand makers for traffic victims, she believes. After all, she still remembers Sister Maeves’ cautionary words about abortion to her class at Loreto Convent: “The most dangerous place to be is in a mother’s womb because even a government lets you kill what’s in there."

In addition, there’s an interactive art mural walk, which you access through a chat bot on Facebook messenger, a hackathon to help conceptualize an augmented reality app, and an ongoing project to create a psychological questionnaire that evaluates the level of violence among young people. “Up to what level do they find it acceptable to be violent with a girl?" Kejriwal wants to know. Anything that can help prevent the crime is fair game for this venture.

Why wait for a girl to get trafficked to save her? That’s one of Kejriwal’s mottos and an approach that many who work in this field are increasingly drawn towards.

Her other motto is a nursery rhyme linked to the way her mind just keeps ticking, relentlessly following up conversations, reaching out to people who might be able to help. “Row, row, row your boat," she says. “I really feel it’s so important to just go on and on and on." Classic pachycephalosaurus behaviour.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets @priyaramani

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