Atira Tan gave up a trip around the world to help young girls es­cape a life of sex slav­ery and re­cover from their trauma.


One woman is help­ing girls es­cape a life of sex slav­ery and re­cover from trauma – and her work is hav­ing a rip­ple ef­fect.

Iun­der­stand what it’s like to live in a so­ci­ety where women are not re­spected. My ma­ter­nal grand­mother bore six chil­dren, five girls and one boy, and she gave all her girls away to fos­ter care and kept only her son. The gen­eral cul­tural view in Singapore dur­ing the 1940s was that be­ing born a woman was sec­ond-rate to be­ing born a man.

The scars of aban­don­ment and ne­glect really af­fected my mother – and she passed this con­di­tion­ing on to me. From in­fancy, she in­stilled in me the be­lief that I was in­ad­e­quate, and noth­ing I ever did was good enough for her.

She would re­peat­edly tell me, “If only you were born a boy, life for me would be so much bet­ter”. I’m an only child, born in the one-child pol­icy era in­spired by China, so she really wanted a boy.

My dad was a night shift worker, which meant that he was quite ab­sent and there­fore not aware of what I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing at home.

My child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences meant that over the years I have strug­gled with shame and feel­ings of be­ing flawed. Es­cap­ing this was not easy, but at age 16, I moved to Aus­tralia as an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent. From there I went to RMIT Univer­sity in Mel­bourne to study Fine Arts.

It was around that time that I be­gan my love affair with yoga and med­i­ta­tion. I was ea­ger to learn about spir­i­tu­al­ity – and when I really dived into ex­plor­ing this, that’s when my life started to change. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from my Fine Arts de­gree, I went on to study Holistic Coun­selling and Transper­sonal Art Ther­apy

– both deeply per­sonal growth en­deav­ours.


A vi­tal part of my heal­ing was my transper­sonal art ther­apy group, which pro­vided a safe and sup­port­ive space where I could work through my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. The cir­cle was made out of 16 strong women – and, as the youngest, to be sur­rounded by in­cred­i­ble role mod­els who were kind, com­pas­sion­ate and non-judge­men­tal, gave me a per­spec­tive on be­ing fe­male that was very dif­fer­ent to what I had ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing my upbringing.

Through art ther­apy, coun­selling and spir­i­tu­al­ity, I re­alised heal­ing, hope and change were all pos­si­ble for me. Through my reg­u­lar med­i­ta­tion and yoga prac­tice, I learned how to heal my scars and tap into an en­ergy that’s higher than all the fears, the doubt and the shame that I car­ried. And by way of learn­ing about the mir­a­cle of my body as a woman, I’ve learned to re­spect my­self. Slowly but surely, I’ve been able to throw off the con­di­tion­ing of my child­hood, and I

“A lot of the women I’ve worked with be­lieve it’s their fault they’ve been sold into sex slav­ery.”

have come to be­lieve that be­ing a woman is as amaz­ing as be­ing a man. In 2004, I bought a round-the-world ticket to study mu­sic and dance, and Cam­bo­dia was my first stop.

When I ar­rived, I dis­cov­ered that there were land­mines ev­ery­where, the roads were all pot­holed, and peo­ple still did not trust each other be­cause of the Pol Pot regime. Many were liv­ing on the streets as a re­sult of ex­treme poverty.

It really moved me to see peo­ple try­ing to sur­vive as best they could un­der such con­di­tions, but what really opened my eyes was the sex tourism. Night af­ter night I would see moth­ers pros­ti­tute their daugh­ters – who were as young as 11 years old – to tourists, for as lit­tle as three US dol­lars. I had never seen any­thing like it be­fore – in­deed, I’d never even heard of sex slav­ery prior to this. But be­ing moved by what I wit­nessed, I built re­la­tion­ships with the young girls, and tried to find out a bit more about what was hap­pen­ing to them.

They had picked up a lit­tle English from serv­ing tourists on the streets, so I would ask them ba­sic ques­tions like, “How are you?” and “Have you eaten?” It was more about get­ting to know them, and lis­ten­ing for in­for­ma­tion beyond the words. What really struck me was their in­no­cence, de­spite hav­ing been so over­sex­u­alised. I also no­ticed how com­pletely down­trod­den and emo­tion­less they seemed

– it was heart­break­ing.

At that mo­ment, I re­alised I had two choices. I could al­low my­self to feel sad for a few days, know­ing that I’d shortly leave Cam­bo­dia and those feel­ings would even­tu­ally fade away into the dis­tance. Or I could al­low my heart and my cu­rios­ity to move me into ac­tion, what­ever that would be, for those girls. I chose the sec­ond op­tion and stayed in Cam­bo­dia.


While in Mel­bourne I had worked with in­car­cer­ated women through the YWCA as an art ther­a­pist, so I felt that I had a lot of skills I could of­fer. I got a job with AFESIP Cam­bo­dia, which is a non-gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion that aims to pro­tect women and girls who are at risk of hu­man traf­fick­ing and sex slav­ery.

Work­ing as an art ther­a­pist, I started to de­velop psy­choso­cial coun­selling and art ther­apy pro­grammes for them. In that time, I dis­cov­ered there were a lot of gaps in terms of trauma-in­formed and psy­choso­cial care. Recovery from sex slav­ery needs to be holistic and deal with de­vel­op­men­tal trauma – oth­er­wise it’s dif­fi­cult to achieve a suc­cess­ful recovery and for these women to be able to in­te­grate back into the com­mu­nity.

For these girls it’s not just the sex slav­ery – there are many more fac­tors to con­sider. Some come from al­co­holic par­ents, or their par­ents may have HIV/AIDS. They are in­cred­i­bly poor and have noth­ing to eat, and in some cases the girls may also ex­pe­ri­ence in­cest.

As a re­sponse to the gap, I set up Art to Heal­ing – a char­ity that uses trauma-in­formed ther­a­pies such as ex­pres­sive art, so­matic psy­chol­ogy (a form of holistic ther­apy that looks at the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the mind and body), yoga and fe­male em­pow­er­ment tools to sup­port and build re­silience in women and girls, so they can live a life free from sex slav­ery.


A lot of the women and girls I’ve worked with be­lieve it’s their fault that they have been sold into sex slav­ery. They feel that they need to re­main in the sex in­dus­try to pay off their karmic debt so in the next life they can be born a boy. And when you’re forced to have sex with as many as 45 men a day, you be­come numb as a way to sur­vive, and that be­comes your de­fault.

How­ever, when you re­ceive trauma-in­formed sup­port, it helps to thaw out that numb­ness, and you start to con­nect to your body as a source of wis­dom. You can re­claim your power and know your value as a woman. In this way, it can pre­vent sex-traf­ficked girls re­turn­ing to that life in fu­ture, as they now know who they are and what they really want.

Over a decade later, I’ve now per­son­ally worked with more than 1,000 women and chil­dren in eight dif­fer­ent coun­tries across Asia and the Pa­cific – and through our part­ner or­gan­i­sa­tions, pre­ven­tion cam­paigns and fur­ther ther­a­peu­tic sup­port in vil­lages, the rip­ple ef­fect is so much more than that.

Women who we’ve helped have gone on to be­come so­cial work­ers in the field, and one of them even ad­vo­cated for anti-traf­fick­ing pol­icy in the Nepalese par­lia­ment. Has this work helped to heal my own per­sonal child­hood wounds? I would have to say no. Rather, I had to fo­cus on heal­ing my­self so that I could be totally present with these women.

When I was 26 years old, while work­ing in Burmese refugee camps, I was di­ag­nosed with stage 3 cer­vi­cal cancer. I then needed to pull back from my work com­pletely to go through a deep heal­ing.

Re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia to re­cover made me re­alise this was the next level of heal­ing for me. It was very painful and challengin­g, but I ended up overcoming it and I’ve now been in re­mis­sion and can­cer­free for more than 10 years.

Fo­cus­ing on my heal­ing away from my work was cru­cial, be­cause as an activist and some­one who in­spires ser­vice and com­pas­sion­ate ac­tion, I feel it’s not fair to bring your bag­gage to your clients. We must be re­spon­si­ble for our own heal­ing, and through our heal­ing we’ll be more able to sup­port other peo­ple.

Say­ing that, what I do gives me pur­pose and a life steeped in meaning. Without a doubt, I know that this is my spir­i­tual path in life.

I’m happy to de­vote the rest of my life, time, en­ergy and ef­fort to this cause, be­cause I be­lieve in it with all of my heart.

Of­fer­ing my ac­tions to some­thing that is greater than my ego and higher than my­self has been a great part of my spir­i­tu­al­ity, and a path that brings more heal­ing and trans­for­ma­tion to hu­man­ity.

Clock­wise from top left: Art ther­apy can be a pow­er­ful tool in trauma recovery;

Yoga helps sur­vivors of sex­ual abuse ad­dress their re­la­tion­ship with their body.

Atira has ded­i­cated her life to help­ing victims of sex slav­ery;

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