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 SUPPORTIVE SPACE
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.
HELPING OTHER GIRLS
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.
THE KARMIC ‘DEBT’
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;