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Kolkata (once known as Calcutta) is infamous for Sonagachi, one of the largest red light districts in Asia. About 10,000 women, trapped in the sex trade, live within a labyrinthine tangle of streets. Many are victims of human trafficking, young village girls lured to the city by false promises of a job or marriage, then sold on the doorstep of a brothel. Others enter the pain factories out of desperation and poverty.
Each night, thousands of men flood into “the Gach.” The women crowd the doorways and line the streets, smiles and makeup pasted on. Yet right in the middle sits an unassuming building where women sew saris into blankets and stitch hope into their lives. This is Sari Bari, a business founded in 2006 by Sarah Lance—formerly a volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying—and Kristin Keen.
Lance and Keen aimed to build a self-sustainable business that could provide freedom and alterative employment to women trapped in the sex trade or at high risk of being trafficked. “I was profoundly afraid of being a hypocrite,” Lance explained. “I really wanted my faith to be active. … We’d been visiting [Sonagachi] for about five years, listening to the women and what their needs were. And what we heard over and over again was: ‘I want a different job.’”
Kolkata’s pervasive “shame culture” means that the families of trafficked girls will often not accept them back for fear of becoming outcast themselves. Most trafficking victims have little or no education or skills: Left with no alternative, they stay in brothels just to survive. A viable business that hires these women is an opportunity to escape. Lance and Keen wrote up a business plan, did market research, and developed a product line—bags and blankets made from saris. Sari Bari began with three women learning to sew in Kolkata’s smaller Kalighat red light district.
In the years since, Sari Bari has opened two production units in Sonagachi and a prevention unit in Canning, a major trafficking source area. It now employs around 110 women from the red light areas, and also operates a nonprofit trust. A social worker provides mental health and medical support. Employees receive preventative care checkups, health insurance, and three-fourths of schooling costs for their children.
The business has struggled but stayed afloat. Instead of employing the best-qualified people, Sari Bari intentionally employs women with no skills, no literacy, small motor skills challenges, and trauma—and still tries to pay well and make a quality product people want to buy. Normal (but tough) business decisions, such as firing an employee, take on enormous weight, since jobless women are likely to return to the sex trade.
‘God created us for work. Whether it’s [sitting] at a desk or stitching a cloth, there’s something empowering about it. It’s important.’—Sarah Lance
It’s not a business model for the faint of heart, yet it is possible. And the potential for transforming women’s and children’s lives is remarkable: Lance says, “After 13 years, we’re now seeing kids in college.”
Sari Bari and other Kolkata social entrepreneurs call their companies “freedom businesses.” Freeset, the largest and oldest of the bunch, has operated a factory in Sonagachi since 2001. It now employs more than 250 women from the red light area, printing T-shirts and making bags and scarves from jute and used saris.
The newest freedom business, Loyal Workshop, opened in 2014 and employs 18 women in Bowbazar, Kolkata’s second-largest red light area. Two years ago Lou and Andy Gane, with their two kids, left comfortable suburban life in New Zealand to live and work in Kolkata. Lou runs Loyal’s sales and marketing. Andy does the accounting: “We wanted to reorient our lives towards people on the margins,” Lou says.
The exacting business requires use of a laser cutter: The smell of burning leather fills the tiny cutting room as the machine’s mechanical arm, following preprogrammed instructions, slices lengths of eco-tanned leather into precise shapes. One staffer sorts the pieces into packets—every component needed to make a particular product—and hands them to the women, who stitch them into satchels, belts, and wallets.
Potential employees also have to reorient their lives: The key question for them to answer is, “Are you prepared to fight for your freedom?” Some women had to pay off debt to a brothel owner before they could even begin working at Loyal. Others struggle with alcohol or drug addiction. Most aren’t used to working regular hours every day, and many need to find new housing outside of the dangerous red light area.
Along with teaching the women a trade, Loyal helps the women walk through these day-to-day challenges by providing budgeting classes, group therapy, and English and Bengali literacy lessons. Every woman Loyal employs has a deeply traumatic personal history. Taking that into account, part of the company’s business model centered on finding a product that didn’t require hard and fast deadlines.
The work itself is also part of the healing process. Rather than operating a production line, with each employee doing a repetitive task, each woman stitches a product from start to finish. With their own two hands, women who once thought they were worthless create something beautiful and valuable. It helps them realize that they too are beautiful and valuable.
Lance says she loves the look on a new employee’s face when she gets her first paycheck and glows with pride. Some eventually become assistant managers, trainers, and production managers, but it’s never easy. “I can’t even count how many times I wanted to quit,” Lance said, “but I’m deeply committed to these women and their freedom journey.” Lance knows that “God created us for work. Whether it’s [sitting] at a desk or stitching a cloth, there’s something empowering about it. It’s important.”
It can all seem like just a drop in the bucket. According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, nearly 8 million people are living in some form of modern slavery in India.
But in Kolkata, Lance has learned to “celebrate the baby steps [and] walk away feeling hopeful that this is happening in the world.”