Even a newcomer to Cambodia is familiar with one grim fact about the country: its reputation of widespread sexual violence and human trafficking.
With a refreshing take at tackling this throbbing issue, last week several NGOs joined forces with Cambodian and international artists hoping to reach a larger audience through visual arts and discussion.
Take Back the Night, a global-scale initiative, saw its local incarnation from July 18 to 21 through a series of special events organised by Artworks for Freedom, within the framework of Meta House’s month-long Free Your Minds Festival.
AWFF founder Kay Chernush said she wanted to breathe new life into an old issue, and “involve many artistic expressions, so that it could provide new entry points into a very dark subject that some people don’t know about or don’t want to know about”.
Her idea materialised in the intimate setting of Phnom Penh’s Meta House where a small group of foreign and Cambodian guests delved into the horrors of victims’ lives as they watched Fields of Mudan – a short drama about a young girl whose dreams of a better life are ruined by the brutal reality of a Chinese brothel.
Dancing boys of Afghanistan, a documentary by Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, followed suit, and long-standing NGOs like Action pour les Enfants continued with a slide show and discussion on their work around the issue.
The more curious visitor would have been drawn to the colourful T-shirts hanging innocently on laundry ropes – a display prepared by two American activists, Elizabeth Johnk and Eileen McCormick, and a handful of Cambodian volunteers who succeeded in convincing child victims to pour their feelings onto the garment canvas.
It’s the second time that the young international social workers, who aren’t affiliated with any local organisation, focus their efforts on a problem which they believe hasn’t been adequately addressed despite many existing initiatives.
But if the cause is admirable, they admit that touching gender issues in a foreign land is often frowned upon.
“We put up with all the expats who were saying they had already helped the orphans. Some people would simply say it’s a stupid idea,” said Johnk, adding that she’s even been called a “feminazi” by critics.
So can foreign hands meddling with what may be perceived as local traditions or customs do any good? As the old controversy rages on, these activists trust that “there’s a respectful way to go about it”.
“Adults and children from all different backgrounds participate in a project like this and even if they’re only thinking about this on a slightly different level than before, I guess I’m OK with that,” said Johnk, who is looking forward to next year’s challenge.
To contact the reporter on this story: Dagmarah Mackos at firstname.lastname@example.org