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Girls are good as gold at SHE rescue NGO

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The practice of kintsugi or ‘fixing the broken bowl’ helps victims of human trafficking. MIGUEL JERONIMO

Girls are good as gold at SHE rescue NGO

Launched from the kind hearts of Hiratsuka Niki and Miguel Jeronimo, the What’s Your Gold? exhibition supports women and girls rescued from sex trafficking, through art therapy. It is currently fundraising to support the university education of girls from the SHE Rescue Home Organisation in Cambodia.

The fundraising includes the culmination of their art project, an exhibition at Shophouse Studio, the gallery of Pteah Chas Community Centre. The exhibition opens on August 13.

Hiratsuka, a half-Japanese half-English Australian is an artist and art therapist who also works as a lecturer and student counsellor at CamEd Business School. Her passion is in combining art with healing, both for individuals and at the level of the community, in projects that promote healing and social change.

The 36-year-old first came to Cambodia 10 years ago on a holiday whilst living in Hanoi.

“I remember how smiling and lovely the Cambodian people were. I never would have guessed that I’d be living here one day, but Phnom Penh has truly become my home, and my friends, my family are here. I have lived here for the past 4 years,” she tells The Post.

Miguel Jeronimo is a photographer, curator and exhibition organiser who mostly focuses on social and environmental topics. He collaborates with different NGOs and other artists, and helps support various fundraising initiatives that he believes can bring positive impacts to Cambodia, the country he calls home, he explains.

“I arrived in 2016 after travelling around Southeast Asia, and quickly fell in love with Phnom Penh. It’s a dynamic city with a thriving art scene and wonderful community of people interested in social change,” says Jeronimo.

Hiratsuka’s work in this area began in Australia with her first solo exhibition in 2016, when she shared publicly that her artworks were about coming to terms with her story of being sexually abused by her father as a child.

She says this was before #metoo, a social movement against sexual abuse and rape culture in which people publicise their experiences of sexual abuse, when even in the west people were not able to openly share their experiences of sexual abuse.

“As such, when I shared my story, people applauded and thanked me for my courage, and I was approached by a few women afterwards who said that they were grateful because they had been through something similar, and that my sharing made them feel less alone,” she says.

This gave her the idea to use art to help women share their stories. By drawing the portrait and sharing the story of any woman who wanted to heal by sharing, it helped others to heal. This was the beginning of her project, 1001 Portraits of the Goddess, which eventually took her to Vietnam to do an exhibition in Hanoi.

While there were one or two Khmer women who volunteered for the project, she says once she arrived in Phnom Penh, she was instantly drawn to supporting rescued trafficked women through art therapy.

One of the techniques she employs is called kintsugi. This is an old practice from Japan where instead of throwing away broken bowls or plates, they are fixed using gold.

“We thought this was a great metaphor for the girls to re-evaluate their past and find the ‘gold’ or true value within themselves. This gave us the inspiration for the title of the exhibition – What’s Your Gold?” she says.

Jeronimo told The Post that the pair are long time friends and currently neighbours. They had the idea a long time ago of working on this topic and helping girls with traumatic experiences on their healing journey, both through art therapy and photography and art.

Both of them have worked with the SHE NGO since late 2020.

“After various attempts with different projects, we finally came across the NGO SHE Rescue Home and decided it was perfect for what we wanted to do, in terms of the social workers there and the girls themselves – with whom we had a strong connection,” says Jeronimo .

He added that the original idea came from dissatisfaction with the normal way that survivors of abuse are portrayed in the media, often with their faces blurred or pixelated for obvious safety or privacy reasons, but with the consequence of erasing their own individuality and personal journey.

“They all become the same, just victims. They are better described as survivors, who show an enormous strength and capacity to overcome past traumas and look towards their future,” he says.

“Hence the idea of having portraits of the girls where each one of them hides their face by collages and drawings that are focused on their future narratives. The blurring and pixelation are replaced by their goals and dreams, and the exhibition becomes a representation of their empowerment journey,” he added.

He says the project is not just fundraising for the girls this NGO helps; a large focus they have is to break the taboo surrounding this topic and try to represent survivors of abuse in a more empowering way.

Hiratsuka says initially, they just wanted to do an exhibition to document the girls’ healing journeys to change social perceptions around the topic. However, when they saw that the NGO needed funds to send four older girls who had left the shelter to university, they saw an opportunity to combine the exhibition with this fundraising initiative, which will go far in changing the lives of the four girls.

“All of the funds raised will go towards paying tuition fees for the four girls over four years, and will cover further initial expenses such as laptops and textbooks. If the fundraiser is successful, it will essentially ensure that the four girls will be able to complete their university education,” she says.

They opened the fundraiser on July 1. Initially it was simply a GoFundMe page, but with the advice of the fundraising coordinator of SHE, they made a video to help people connect with the project. The video received an amazing reaction over Instagram and Facebook, and has been a very powerful way for them to convey the message of the project to both the Khmer and international community before the exhibition even opens.

At first the goal was to raise $14,400 but now the target has been reduced as the NGO was able to secure a $1,000 donation. As of July 31, they have raised $7,052.

Hiratsuka says if the fundraising works and the girls can build better futures through education, it will send a strong positive message to the seven girls who are currently living at the shelter.

“They are still young and it’s crucial they have inspiring role-models who are close to their experience, so having their older colleagues who already graduated from high school and left the house be reintegrated back into society will set the tone for their own recovery,” she says.

Although the SHE NGO told Hiratsuka they have a policy of not allowing the media access to the girls because of the possibility of misrepresentation, they did share some stories about the girls who are headed for university.

Sreyny, a pseudonym, was one of the first girls to ever enter the SHE Rescue Home back in 2008. Her story was horrific. However, with the support of her family, SHE housemothers, social workers and counsellors, she has built an incredible life for herself.

Sreyny has just turned 20, has finished high school and been accepted to university to study Chemical Engineering and Food Technology. She is hoping to use her degree to work in safe water and food manufacturing and distribution in Cambodia.

The degree is over four years and her first semester started in February. Fundraising has covered the initial cost of purchasing a laptop, textbooks, scientific equipment and other course needs.

The exhibition will be another chance to give.

“It will include not only the kintsugi bowls and the portraits made by the girls, but also some artworks made by both of us as a representation of the topic through our eyes. Throughout the whole month that the exhibition is running, Niki will also be organising art therapy sessions at United Yoga Asia, with the payment by participants going to fundraising efforts as well,” Jeronimo says.

“Please come and support this initiative at the exhibition opening and, if you have the means, you can always join the fundraising effort to provide a brighter future to these four girls,” he added.

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