I recently visited a rural region of West Bengal. Whenever I head up country I am always impressed by the beautiful countryside. Lush green fields of rice reach into the distance, the horizon dotted with stoops of harvested jute. Beat-up 3-wheeled vehicles putter past loaded up with locals and their cargo, while buffalo wallow in pools of water awaiting their turn to pull the plow. Children riding over-sized bicycles excitedly chatter with their friends while women drape colourful saris from the roof of their home. Others wash their family’s clothes, thrashing the garments against smooth rocks in the local pond. It all creates the appearance of such an idyllic setting and yet it is a place struggling with immense poverty.
I met two thirteen year old girls on this visit and the contrast in their outlook on life was as different as it was illuminating.
Sitting cross-legged on the smoothed mud floor of a village hut beneath a thatched verandah, I’m grateful for the shade it affords from the blazing sun. Our host has generously piled the customary mountain of rice on the plate that sits in front of me. As we eat, I notice a girl standing shyly in the doorway observing the foreign guests. She is hesitant as I try to engage her in conversation with my rudimentary Bengali.
“What is your name?”
‘Paloma’, she replies.
“How old are you?”
“What class are you in?”
“What is your favourite subject?”
I try asking her a question in English at which point she timidly retreats behind the door frame. A little later when she again emerges from the shadows, I ask her what she wants to do when she finishes school. Before she has a chance to say anything, her mother answers for her. “She’s a village girl, want can she do?” The resigned despair of these words would bounce around in my head for the next few days. “What can she do?”
The next day I shared lunch with friends in a modest, middle-class home in a small city not that far from the village of the previous day. These friends have a thirteen year old daughter – Nuri. I decided to repeat the conversation of the previous day.
“What class are you in?”.
“What is your favourite subject?”.
This time we are having the conversation in English and she is quite fluent. I ask, “What do you want to do when you finish school?” This time Nuri answers for herself without skipping a beat, “I want to be a doctor”.
So I was left with this question, “What is so different about these two girls, close in age, who live so close to each other?”
The Indian education system, while being far from perfect has made significant progress with the education of girls in recent years. Just a casual (and unscientific) poll of women at Freeset and Sari Bari reveals that women aged thirty-plus are likely to have less education than girls in their late teens and early twenties. This is partly a reflection on the hiring policies of the two businesses, as women who have been in the sex trade often begin at a young age which deprives them of education, but the fact remains that generally girls are staying at school for longer in India and that’s a good thing right?
Of course the answer is “yes”, but it got me thinking about context. When I was young, I lived on a small farm in a rural part of New Zealand, but I always knew that my horizons were bigger than the farming community I grew up in. If I wanted to do other things, I saw no reason why they might not be possible. Why was that? I believe the answer is opportunity. I always knew that life beyond the farm was a perfectly realistic possibility.
But girls (and boys) in villages and cities all around India need more than just the education they are getting. They need to see there are realistic possibilities for them to find work, to earn an income and to put their education to good use.
As I reflected on the hopelessness of the village mother and her bleak outlook for her daughter, I came to the sad realization that her analysis was actually reasonable. In her world, there really were very few opportunities. They have little money. Employment is hard to come by and farm labouring jobs are highly seasonal, perhaps only providing 3-4 months of work each year. With a stubbornly persistent dowry system in a society that expects everyone to marry, families can find the marriage of a daugher financially crippling. The really scary part; her village is one from which we know many women have been trafficked and poverty is one of the biggest risk factors.
There’s another challenge too – helping impoverished children and their families see the value in education. I once heard a fifteen year old girl say she thought she was wasting her life being at school – she should be working and earning an income! Clearly for many, there is no connection between better economic outcomes and better education. There is a real sense of urgency, “I need the money now!” And who can blame them? They have so little to begin with.
So what can be done? Is there any hope for change? One thing is for sure – there are no easy answers, but I believe there is hope that together we can weave a better future.
I have the privilege of working with people whose lives are a testament to what these opportunities can do. One of the men who works at Freeset is the son of a woman who used to work with us, but who tragically succumbed to illness as a result of her time in the sex trade. His experience growing up was that if he mentioned where he lived, people’s attitude toward him changed – and not for the better. People expected nothing more for him than that he would turn out to be a lazy alcoholic with nothing to offer.
Businesses like Freeset and Sari Bari play an important part in the type of change we need to see. Providing economic opportunities for those whose lives have been trashed in Kolkata’s red light areas and also supporting them to see their children well educated is an important step forward. It means a new generation can step out from behind the despair and begin to live with the real hope that things can change for the better.
Freeset is now also looking to these poor rural communities that see their daughters trafficked into the sex trade. Why not establish businesses there to help stop these women being trafficked in the first place? A weaving business called Freeset Fabrics is already being developed to kick off this initiative in the villages. Look out for freedom scarves in 2015!
The exciting thing is that working together we can make a difference!
John Sinclair spent 10 years doing all manner of things in New Zealand’s TV industry before jumping ship to work with Freeset – a freedom business in Kolkata, India. He believes people-focused businesses can be used to help transform lives and make the world a better place. John Sinclair is the General Manager of Freeset Bags and Apparel.
Pinky’s story changed my life. A 16 year-old girl – who had just begun selling herself 10 days earlier in Sonagacchi, one of the most notorious red light areas in the world – shared a small piece of her life with me through tear-rimmed and vulnerable eyes. She lost mother, her father was sick and she had two little brothers. She felt she had no other choice. Poverty had driven her to this place of no options. I had to walk away that day. Back in 2004 there literally was no place for her to go. As I left her, I said a prayer. I told God that I never ever wanted to walk away from a girl like that again without being offer her a way out. In 2006, that wrenching prayer was answered when we opened the doors of Sari Bari. Since then Sari Bari has grown to three production units and almost 100 women employed for freedom.
Right, now Sari Bari is almost full. There is no more room at our units in Sonagacchi and Kalighat for women or staff. (A little space remains in the prevention unit, which will fill up this month as new training begins on May 5th.).
We have been on a long road toward opening our 4th Sari Bari unit, which will provide employment for at least 40 more women. Passion 2012 generously gifted us with the funds for the building purchase and the majority of the funds for re-construction. The roof and floors have all been rebuilt and replaced, the walls stripped and redone, the stairs torn down and rebuilt; the windows and doors stripped and rebuilt; a new water system installed and now we have started some small painting projects with the help of volunteers.
We are at the door of completion and we cannot do it without your engaged partnership and generosity. You are an essential part of girls like Pinky having a choice for freedom and someplace to go other than being prostituted in the lanes of the red light area.
All that remains is the plumbing, electrical and initial set up costs for the production unit. We ask you join with us to raise the final $16,000.00 by May 20th in order to complete the work. Your partnership is an investment in freedom and helping us continue to focus our earned income on the women themselves for fair wages and good benefits.
This is the home stretch and we hope you will join us by donating to the finishing costs so we will be ready to open our doors to new women on June 9, 2014.
Employment for more than 40 new women and the support of future generations toward freedom, education and new opportunities
Opening a new full time Sari Bari Trust office, employing our first full time locally hired social worker, and offers more comprehensive aftercare and support for our women.
Expansion of leadership opportunities for the women of Sari Bari
Thank you for your passion for helping Sari Bari welcome girls like Pinky into a safe place -a place where freedom and new life is possible.
Co-Founder and Managing Director
P.S. We can literally give 40 women a choice. You can be a part of one woman’s first steps toward freedom as you invest in this place of safety, beauty and collaborative empowerment for women on the exodus road to freedom (Donate here)
Today we celebrate 8 years of New Life in the Making. Yesterday I spent a good part of my day trying to take it in, taking breaks to sit on the floor to talk with the women, in-between solving a production crisis, then again escaping the work to hold babies —I was chatting with “Prianka”, the mommy, who has worked for us for almost 5 years as she was pulling up her blanket, just finished, I asked do you feel proud when you finish a blanket…because it is truly beautiful what you do. She said, “I feel peace.” Ah peace. Sari Bari is a place of peace no doubt.
Eight years of countless freedom birthdays began with the first on February 20, 2006. What began on that day is something that has become far more than any one of us who remember that day could have imagined. Three women have become almost 100. Everyday is hope embodied, enfleshed, lived out in the red light areas of Kalighat and Sonagacchi as the women of Sari Bari leave their rooms and instead of selling their bodies, they stitch beauty with their hands and embody a prophetic hope for the girls and women who still finds themselves working in the lanes of the red light areas.
Their trafficking and trauma stories compelled us as a community into the area of prevention and now we can say that there are 38 women who themselves and their daughters may never have to find themselves on the doorstep of a brothel. And prevention has found its champion in Sari’s Bari’s first staff member and the big brother to us all. Upendra Prasad Saha will lead the way, we know few better men in the world, as Sari Bari expands more deeply into the area of 24 South Paraganas in 2014-2015, to provide employment to women vulnerable to trafficking.
There have been rivers of tears both angry and healing. And if you could bottle the laughter that has been shared within the walls of Sari Bari and then uncork it, it might be years before the laughter comes to an end. We have shared the table so to speak, sitting around on the floor of Sari Bari eating and sharing our lunches, our lives, our everything, at least a couple thousand times in the last 8 years.
We have lost friends and sisters to cancer, AIDS, violence, sudden death and to the hard to escape emotional bondage with which the sex trade holds its prey. Yet, our memory is long, we don’t forget the ones we have lost and we still hope for the return of the ones who did not find their way the first time on freedom’s path. We wait with Hope, sometimes on a thread, sometimes with abundant expectation. Hope works either way.
Sari Bari has grown from being able to stitch a sari blanket and to being able to stitch 55 thousand square feet of sari material (yep, that’s a football field) for products ranging from blankets to bags to scarves in the last year. We have grown in partnership from a couple of “bideshi’s” (foreigners) and a couple of “deshi’s” (locals) to a leadership primarily made up of the women who have found freedom with the space that Sari Bari was created to offer.
The world has changed; we have been changed by the freedom journey as we share it together. If we may be so bold as to say, Sari Bari has changed our lives, maybe even the world, at least our little part of it. We have been taught to celebrate and mourn, we have been held and hugged, we have danced and created, we have birthed and buried, we have eaten till our bellies are stretched tight and our hearts are overflowing. Lives have been changed, freedom has been found, leaders have been developed, SB women’s children are graduating from high school, entering college, holding jobs their mother’s could never have dreamed and yes, there is still more to be done, more women who need the opportunity to find freedom and so we press on, dream on, hold on. Yep, the world’s changed in our neck of the woods and still needs changing, thankful for the last 8 years and looking forward to the next eight!
Sari Bari celebrates “men’s day” once year. Something we actually started last year, which was born out of the imagination and desire to celebrate the very good men who work for us. They are few but heroic in their own ways, a son of woman formerly in the trade who is passionate not only about his mom’s freedom but about all the women at Sari Bari finding their way to freedom. Sweet Upendra, a man among men, barely grazing 5 feet and yet containing one of the biggest hearts on earth, a doing, defender of us all. And there are the men who cut the bags and do the accounts reminding us that there are good men out their and they show us what exactly it means to know what it feels like to be respected, honored and cherished. They make hope tangible for us whose experience has not always been so positive.
When you walk into to Sari Bari you walk into a space where women are central. Everyday inside these walls, it is about the women, their journey’s, their stories and their healing and their empowerment to be able to live like they are within the safe walls of Sari Bari even when venture outside the wall. Men’s Day is just one day we remember that the men in our lives are an important part of the story, for both BETTER and worse. Because the truth is when you walk outside the walls of Sari Bari it is always “Men’s Day”. A place where men can walk the streets unconcerned for their safety, their dignity and a place where their rights need little defending—that’s what it’s like for men everyday (at least that is what I presume and have observed as a woman in India and elsewhere). We want to honor the ones who truly seem to have a desire to honor women and particularly the ones who want to honor women who making the painful and difficult journey that the women at Sari Bari are making toward new life. They exemplify Hope.
I know “good” men, a lot of them. It all started with my Dad. I have a great great Dad. A kind, compassionate, justice oriented, hardworking, feminist, creative and fabulous dad. Such a Dad that made me feel that I never needed to defend my rights as a woman, because that is how much respect I was given. I was told and shown from early on that I could do and be anything, just do my best, male or female, that was all that mattered. He told me and still tells me that I am beautiful and loved, that I can do anything. I don’t always believe him, but that is mainly about me and at 40 I am surely farther along in believing my Dad than I ever have been. My dad, Tudor D. Lance is an excellent man.
And certainly there are so many, many male friends and mentors who honor and care for the women in their lives as equals, partners and friends without prejudice. These men are gifts, undoubtedly imperfect as we all are, and certainly something to write home about.
I have experienced first hand both in India and elsewhere some men who are challenged by my confidence, who think my body is for gratification and my mind a waste of good wife material. I am sorry for these guys. They are missing out on some tremendous gifts that can be offered by the other half of humanity. Because the women I know would do anything for their kids even sell their bodies, they are smart, funny and sassy. They are heroic beings of strength and vision. They are so so so much much more than objects. The men who cannot see the whole, are missing out on being better men, they missing out on their wives wisdom and strength, they are missing out on the beauty that women uniquely hold and they are missing out on gifts that are only offered in places of trust and mutual respect.
So today, I am thankful for the “good men”, the ones who change the world when they show respect, share power, give dignity and remember that they are always only half the solution and half of the story. I am thankful for the men at Sari Bari and beyond who are making Hope Tangible.
A special thanks to the husbands and partners of the women at Sari Bari who are through their support and partnership apart of making hope tangible.
Since 2001 Sarah Lance has spent most of her time in Kolkata, India, where her neighbors are the women, men and children of Kolkata’s largest red light district. Sarah desires to be a positive presence as she partners with the community, friends and neighbors in the fight for freedom and the sustainable restoration of Kolkata’s red-light areas.
Sarah co-founded, Sari Bari Private Limited, a social business, to give freedom to women from the sex trade through alternative employment. Sari Bari Private Limited currently brings empowerment and freedom to over 90 women in two red light areas and one village trafficking source area.
She continues to dream for things she may never see, avoiding 5 year plans in favor of a 50 year plan for long term economic empowerment and social change for women in India. She loves sharing life with her friends and colleagues at Sari Bari. She desire’s to be an advocate for HOPE for the women who continue in bondage in the red light areas.
Sarah is currently the Creative and Managing Director of Sari Bari. Her job is to offer love, creativity, vision and direction to the Sari Bari movement and community.
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahspundita or follow her blog where this post was first featured www.reclaimrestore.com
If you sit among us for a while, amidst the Bengali conversation you don’t understand, you will hear the word paribar spoken often. It means family, and along with being a business focused on quality products, customer care and employee satisfaction, Sari Bari is also a family.
At Sari Bari, our employees – our friends, our sisters – find not only an alternative source of income – a vital step in exiting the sex trade – but they find a new community, a new home, a new family and a new chapter of their story. Like many families, we laugh together, sometimes we fight, and what keeps us going is the love that binds us and the hands that hold us as we continue to walk toward freedom.Our family chooses to celebrate Christmas together. Maybe yours does too. We give gifts for Christmas – gifts to our employees and their children. We also gather as a family to celebrate, to party. $20 covers the cost for the gifts and the party for one employee.
This Christmas, we invite you to join your family with ours. As you gather with your family to remember and celebrate and give gifts, will you also help us celebrate with the 100 members of the Sari Bari family?
We need 100 gifts in 7 days! Will you join us? To donate $20 for us to celebrate Christmas with our family, click here!