This Anti-Trafficking Group Uses Art and Fashion to Take Down Child Slavery

Beauty for Freedom is trying to be a leading voice in the fight against child trafficking.

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Jun 19 2017, 10:10pm

Photo via Beauty for Freedom.

"Raising awareness" is a slippery phrase. It can connote empty shows of solidarity rather than actual work, like performatively changing a profile pic after a tragedy. There's a good amount of reasonable critique to the effect that, say, breast cancer does not benefit from all this extra awareness, at least in the absence of any accompanying action. People know about breast cancer. But slavery, for those fortunate enough to have no experience of it, is often something people associate with the past.

Consider the shocked response to the Atlantic's recent account of one writer's family slave. Even people with a working awareness of how human trafficking persists today might not know the scale of global child slavery -- the International Labor Organization puts the number of children in forced labor at 168 million. Monica Watkins, founder of the anti-trafficking non-profit Beauty for Freedom, says what drove her to this line of work was the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, in which scores of vulnerable orphaned youth fell prey to a surge of traffickers.

"I actually met a few kids who had been sold into sex slavery," Watkins told VICE Impact. "This was the first time I felt an actual physical pain from the knowledge that this child, whose [parents] had just died, was sold and forced to have sex with people for money just to survive."

Watkins launched Beauty for Freedom in 2014. Initially, the organization focused on raising awareness (and funds) for non-profits doing rescue, recovery,and reintegration work with survivors of human trafficking. But she's since expanded it to include a travel abroad arts program, hosting art therapy workshops for rescued former slaves in the United States, India, and Cambodia. On June 22, Beauty for Freedom will fly out to Ghana to spend three weeks teaching survivors and at-risk youth art therapy skills like photography, mural and textile painting, and design, and then celebrate by unveiling the art for the community. Watkins and her colleagues will be partnering with Challenging Heights, an organization that's attempting to end child trafficking in Ghana within the next five years.

Watkins (right) and Estonia-born model and Beauty for Freedom partner, Michaela Vybohova.

The project marks the organization's first expansion into sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest rates of forced child labor anywhere in the world. The most recent survey of Ghana available from the ILO found that nearly a quarter of the country's youth between five and 17 were engaged in child labor, much of it hazardous.

Gearing up to the trip, Beauty for Freedom hosted a series of fundraising and awareness events in New York, including a panel discussion that included James Kofi-Annan, founder and president of Challenging Heights. Kofi-Annan was sold into slavery at age six and freed himself at 13; his foundation has since rescued hundreds of children from trafficking and forced labor.

James Kofi-Annan speaking at a Beauty for Freedom panel discussion.

"I think that's part of the start of how we can actually eradicate slavery," Watkins says. "If we listen to survivors and actually learn from their perspective."

The week-long push culminated with a networking and fundraising event at a sleek event space in Chelsea, with 100 percent of the donations (including donated artwork for sale and a jewelry pop-up) going toward Project Ghana.

Populated by what Watkins calls the "downtown crowd" -- models, designers, photographers, influencers -- it featured Ghanian-inspired decor, a DJ curating a "sort of afropunk, deep house" sound, and savvy "BFF" acronyms for social traction. It was hosted by Slovenian-born model Michaela Vybohova, who's been working in New York now for the last two years. Many of the attendees came from her professional fashion and beauty networks, industries which are often trafficking hotbeds of their own.

"Young girls get recruited from Estonia, from eastern Europe, and they come over and they'll either be in the nightclubs or they're not found again," says Vybohova, who also alludes to a pending legal case of her own. "I've seen this happen, I know girls this has happened to, and I've been doing my best to try to fight this … but human trafficking, it's hard for a lot of people to talk about."

The crowd at the Beauty for Freedom event.

Vybohova is now partnering with Beauty for Freedom to connect designers and activists within the fashion industry. She previously traveled with the organization for its arts therapy program in India, and will make the trip again when they return in August.

"People from fashion, I feel like people look at them as the shallow ones," Vybohova says. "But they're the ones spreading awareness and they're the ones here trying to make a change."