March-June is the height of the trekking season in Nepal. Travelers come from all parts of the globe to climb the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. Unfortunately, there is a lesser known but more profitable trek between Nepal and India that is limited to women and children. Poor families in rural areas of the country are fooled into selling their children to traffickers so that they can pay for food for the remaining children. Women are lured into the sex industry and then kept prisoner with violence. The trafficking of women and girls from Nepal to India is considered one of the busiest sex trafficking routes in the world, involving 5000-10,000 females a year.
Bethany Richards, an artist in California, recently had the opportunity to travel to Nepal with the Wall of Hope Campaign. Never having traveled internationally prior to this experience and purchasing her ticket on a whim after meeting one of the mural artists, Bethany had no idea how this trip would change the trajectory of her life. She signed on with the idea that she would be the support team – cleaning paint brushes, mixing paint and hoping that she may get a few brushstrokes on the wall. When one of the artists needed to leave early, she was thrown into the intense day-long process of creating life-size art that was meant to bring awareness to sex trafficking as well as empower girls and women to break thru the cultural barriers that allow this practice to continue.
I know Bethany only peripherally; she is the daughter of my church’s pastor. I recently saw some of her Nepal mural paintings on social media, posted by her proud parents, and was intrigued to find out more. Two hours spent at a coffee shop with her was not near enough time to tell the entire story. But what I did hear was fascinating and worth sharing here.
Wall of Hope had commissioned two murals to be painted on the European Union and Australian embassy walls in Kathmandu. The first day was spent cleaning and priming the wall, while explaining to passersby the intent of the paintings. 5 – 12 hour workdays later the first wall at the EU embassy was completed.
The story depicted in art moves from right to left, from darkness into light and from the street to the door of the EU embassy. The woman clothed in a red drape, measuring 6 ft tall and 12.5 feet wide, is seen reaching out for help with her feet entangled in chains. As your eye moves to the left, a bird is seen breaking thru the chains of bondage, leading to the possibility of freedom. This is followed by the eyes of a Nepali girl, the first eye with a teardrop for sadness/empathy and the second eye bordered on the lower lid by a lotus flower, symbolizing strength and resilience. The girl is able to see the violence against girls and women in her culture, but unable to change her circumstances. Behind the eyes is an image of paradise drawn in the style of a traditional Thangka painting, a Tibetan style of art popular in Nepal. The wall appears to have “broken” in this area, allowing the girl to see a paradise that has previously been hid from view. The final painting of a girl and clouded leopard faded into each other is representative of the ability to become powerful even when threatened with extinction.
During the week numerous school groups visited and helped to paint while hearing explanations of the various elements of the painting, a form of art therapy designed to increase awareness about violence against women. Midweek a small group of women from a local women’s shelter visited the wall. Without explanation, they were able to interpret the individual elements of the mural because they had lived the experience of moving from bondage/abuse into a better life. One of the girls stated that she felt that she didn’t yet have the power of the leopard but she hoped in the future to possess that quality.
The second mural was painted on the wall of the Australian embassy and broadened the them to include child labor. The artists were concerned that the Nepalese would be angry that a Western based organization was exposing a shameful part of their culture. Instead, they received only affirmative responses from the crowds that gathered to watch to week-long painting marathon. Most adults were aware of trafficking and child labor and appreciative that the paintings were not only sensitive to their culture but also that outsiders were helping to tell stories that increased awareness of the problem. One young man shared his story of engaging in sex trafficking and felt that society didn’t condemn his behavior enough. He stayed for 4 days to help with the painting as a way to absolve his behavior.
On the left, smoke from a brick factory that exploits child labor is invading the room next to a picture of imprisoned children behind a barbed wire. The bed beneath the frame is representative of sex trafficking; the propped up doll reminding us that these are still children despite their circumstances. Serving tea is a universal welcoming gesture in Nepal with the words on the cup spelling out harmony below the peace flags. The steam emitting from the tea ceremony encircles the grandmother’s smile, signifying the ability of elders to look back in time and find degrees of happiness within hardship. The dancer is performing a Buddhist traditional dance with her expressive hand gestures representative of reflection and being grounded in the past while also looking into the future. The final symbol is the bookshelf in front of an open window, symbolizing that education brings knowledge and can be a window to the future and a better world.
The end of the trip culminated in a gathering of 800 students, ages 13-17 and mostly girls, for International Women’s Day. Bethany was asked to speak and share her personal story with the students. But this wasn’t a story about the paintings. Bethany had another story to share. Despite growing up in a stable family with loving parents who were able to provide her with food and shelter, Bethany had been the victim of sexual abuse. Not once, but twice. Following is the transcript of her speech.
I had no choice. My innocence ripped away from me the first night I went to college. Infant, I don’t remember most of the event. I remember tripping and falling, the rough hand that grabbed me and the mean voice that yelled at me for crying and slowing him down. I remember the next morning waking up alone and realizing what had occurred because my pants were caked in dried blood and my insides hurt. I remember the shame and the pain I hid and carried for over a year before anyone else knew.