The Role of Performing arts in Countering human trafficking

Article by Bernard Muhia the Director of Fern Poems

The Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Mr. Antonio Maria Costa says that art is one of the most powerful advocacy tools to raise awareness and move people to take action. Whereas lectures and books are good in their respect, they are no match for the power of music, drama or poetry in disseminating crucial messages on human trafficking. The fact that art is often entertaining at its very core means that there is an extended attention span associated with it and an improved capacity to remember the message contained therein.

This brings me to my second point. Performance arts are most effective when the audience participates in the dissemination of the message. This is the reason why there are practicals in schools so that the students can learn by doing. This drastically increases their chances of deeply understanding and remembering what they have learnt. Therefore, art can be used as a means of providing a cultural and social voice where engagement by participants promotes their role as active and creative citizens.

Sanalimu Art Ensemble using percussion and narration to pass out counter trafficking message

Therefore, art can be used as a means of providing a cultural and social voice where engagement by participants promotes their role as active and creative citizens. This aspect of audience participation is a method we as Fern Poetry have used in our advocacy campaigns against human trafficking. Using poetry as our medium, we have been able to reach High School students who are in the most vulnerable age bracket for human trafficking. We have achieved this by reciting/reading poems for the students. The poems not only break down this issue into an understandable concept but they also use heavy imagery and empathy to appeal to the minds and hearts of the students thereby ensuring that the message truly gets home.

The Fern Poems educating students against human trafficking using poems

In an effort to ensure their participation in the process, we then ask the students to also write their own poems and essays on the topic of human trafficking as they understand it. I have some of these submissions with me and I hope to indulge you in sampling what the students have to say during the course of this symposium. As the students write their poems and essays, they sharpen their knowledge on the subject which further engraves the message in their minds and impresses upon them the need to also engage in creating further awareness on human trafficking to their peers and other networks.

Onyango from Kitale AIDS programme using humour to educate the public against human trafficking

In order to make the performance arts more effective in creating public awareness, always ensure that:

  1. The performance arts campaign has a broad support system. Ideally, the more people working on the awareness campaign, the greater the likelihood that it will be successful. In our case, involving the students by asking them to create their own poems about human trafficking means that there is an actual two-way exchange and that the students themselves also become agents of awareness creation.
  2. Secondly, ensure that there is room for all forms of art. Do not limit the performance to one form of art, say poetry, because you will have locked out other writers and singers as well as painters and sculptors. Even though the awareness campaign may have started with one form of art, make sure that it is open to all other forms of art.
  3. Thirdly, always make sure that there is a concise and consistent message throughout the campaign. Cross-check your facts and where possible, give the audience reference materials that they can use as they co-create artwork meant to promote awareness on human trafficking. The last thing we need is misinformation.

Among the various forms of art that organizations can use in their counter human trafficking programs include music concerts, exhibitions of photos, paintings, drawings and carvings, plays and dramas, poetry recitals and readings as well as holding competitions on these art forms.

In addition to all these, performance arts can also be used as a healing tool to rehabilitate survivors of human trafficking and especially child victims. Art helps them to express things that they may not be able to articulate or are too embarrassed or afraid to talk about. Art can thus be a therapeutic medium in the recovery of survivors.


With regard to media relations, performance arts are a unique proposition to present to the media. Advocacy is typically about seminars and community workshops and these are effective in their own right, but that’s how everybody does their advocacy. So as an organization, you need a unique angle that sets you apart from other advocacy campaigns. Performance arts can provide that ‘wow effect’ that the media looks for. Performance arts are not only entertaining but they are also educative. It’s like killing two birds with one stone.

Speaking from my experience as a journalist, art is always a softer alternative to hard-hitting news. My poem on human trafficking was featured on CNN International because of that very aspect. After covering all the major conferences and seminars on human trafficking, CNN wanted to highlight other unique strategies that stakeholders in counter human trafficking were using to make a difference. Poetry was my unique thing and it got me noticed. It was a fresh and new approach to the advocacy campaign. Art has a way of humanizing or emotionalizing a problem. Art is about exploring not just the facts about the problem but also the feelings and emotions of that problem as felt by those who face it. Art doesn’t just give you the statistics but it also gives you the emotionality of the victims. And finally, art doesn’t just appeal to your mind and intellect, it also moves your heart and soul.

When pitching your performance arts campaign to the media, always ensure that you use what I call the ‘laser approach’. Identify a specific programme, presenter and/or journalist that will identify with the subject you aim to create awareness on. For example, in my case with CNN, I specifically targeted a programme called ‘The Freedom Project’. The freedom project is a year-long series that CNN launched to address the issue of human trafficking. That’s what I mean by being specific.

Secondly, always find ways to insert your message in any context when talking to the media. Here’s an example, my colleague was invited to NTV for an interview about a poetry event we were organizing that wasn’t in any way related to the human trafficking project. The presenter asked him if we had thought about taking poetry to schools and he took that opportunity to explain our human trafficking project in detail. It may not have been the reason why he went there but he used the opportunity to highlight our project.

Thirdly, when sending information to the media about your project, make sure that it is short and to the point. Just a few lines to a paragraph are enough to get the journalist interested in your story. Then the next thing the journalist will do is follow-up. So if you have a website or blog put the link there or your phone contacts so that they are able to get in touch with you.

Also, don’t just try to be covered in the news, think also of being featured in the non-news programs. These non-news programs include talk shows, art programs, health programs, human rights programs and even business programs. These programs provide you with media exposure and it is usually targeted exposure because the people watching or listening to that program have an interest in the subject matter. Likewise, the journalists or presenters of these programs are also looking for organizations like yours and so it’s a win-win situation.

Rafiki Mwafrika, in their drama entitled Mambo. Drama is a powerful enactment of reality.

Lastly, don’t shy away from calling-in live or sending text messages to a radio show or T.V. program. The host or presenter might sample your text message as part of the audience response and read it on air or they might receive your call and thus you get an opportunity to speak about your organization and your performance arts program. By so doing, you have just earned your organization and your arts campaign some impromptu media exposure.

In conclusion, the role of performing arts cannot be understated. It is organizations that are especially in the advocacy business that need to appreciate that there is always room for the arts in any awareness campaign. Art brings people together in a relaxed environment where they are able to more easily absorb the message when it is delivered in a light-hearted manner.

The youth are also very appreciative of the arts, and the fact that they are the most vulnerable population to human trafficking, means that art is then the most appropriate medium to use when creating awareness among them.

Long live the arts!


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Amani for Africa » Contro il traffico di persone umane

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