LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hazel Thompson spent more than a decade documenting sex trafficking in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, listening to stories from hundreds of girls and children, who wistfully told her, “If only I was educated about this….”
Now, the award-winning photojournalist hopes the reams of material she has collected for her 2013 ebook "Taken" can be translated, turned into illustrations and used to do just that - educate children, before traffickers get to them.
Thompson spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation after a panel about fighting forced labour in South Asia at the Trust Women conference in London last week.
Q: You spent over a decade documenting sex trafficking in Mumbai. What would you like to see happen next?
A: The whole reason I’ve gone for 11 years is really to expose the truth of what a red light district is. Not just the horrors, but the daily life and the reality of this place. My hope is that by shedding the light on a very dark place, where lots has been hidden – cages have been hidden, the girls have been hidden – my hope is that the Indian government takes notice, that things start changing.
As I said in my speech, this place has existed since the British Raj, which helped set up the trafficking system by procuring pretty young girls for the military. These girls aren’t there by choice. I hope that my pictures have shed the light. You can look at the facts, but it’s very hard to turn away from a picture. I’ve tried to show the work as a body of evidence.
Q: Can you tell me more about the in-depth research you’ve done around the world on this issue?
A: It was in 2002 that I first learned about trafficking, and India was the first place I went. Because I’ve continued to go back over the years, my passion for it and my interest has built. I worked with the Body Shop on a huge campaign to stop sex trafficking. For that, I did investigations in South Africa around whether or not there was an increase in trafficking at the World Cup. I also did a story on domestic trafficking in Sweden around that campaign. I’ve also looked at it in Cambodia and in the Philippines.
I’m always looking to explore this issue because I really want to understand. Even when I was living in Bahrain for a completely different project, I found out that there was a hotel which was known as a brothel where westerners went. So I just walked in pretending I didn’t know. And it’s quite powerful, as a Western woman. It was amazing how the tables cleared, because they can’t throw me out. It’s meant to be a hotel. I found out that some of the girls there were Filipino and that they had a new lot coming in from China. Whenever I can, I want to learn. I want to understand what’s happening in other countries. I’ll never pretend to be a politician or an academic, but my hope is to tell the story of the women and show the reality, the truth, of these places.
Q: Now that you have this body of evidence, what do you think are the main barriers to creating change?
A: Apathy. There’s a lot of apathy. It’s hard to get people on board. It’s not an easy subject to cover. For me, it’s an emergency situation. Girls’ lives are being destroyed every single day. Thousands of girls in India alone. I get frustrated. I want there to be quicker response. I know this is a long-term problem, and we need to look at long-term solutions, but I’ve sat for years in these brothels and seen what happens to these girls’ lives on a daily basis. So my hope is that if it becomes a priority for policymakers, police forces, education.
Q: During the panel session, you proposed an educational initiative that would use the materials from your ebook "Taken" for a prevention campaign throughout India, Nepal and Bangladesh to make children less susceptible to trafficking. Can you tell me how it would work?
A: Basically, I have got the true stories and I think truth is a very powerful thing. When you tell someone’s story, it wakes people up. Most of the children and girls I’ve met keep saying “if only I was educated about this.” There is such a level of naiveté. They were easy pickings. They were high-risk. I’ve got the materials for the region around India, Bangladesh, and Nepal and I would love other people to create more prevention materials around the world. My vision is to take these stories, get them translated in all the dialects, get them into comics and local places.
Girls are being targeted in the poorest villages. There aren’t even schools in some of these villages. What I would love is to have some research on the ground, find out the best form of communication and then work out the best way to distribute information. I want to work with government bodies, educational departments and police departments. Basically, there’s so much corruption, the children are easy targets. If we can catch them young, even to sow the seeds of warning, hopefully we can save a few from being taken. That’s just coming from hearing hundreds of stories. Let’s get one step ahead of the traffickers, because education changes everything.