India: Bringing dignity to women in Sonagacchi through Freeset
|Title||Bringing dignity to women in Sonagacchi through Freeset|
|Description||Freeset is a fair trade business offering employment to women trapped in Kolkata’s sex trade.|
Freeset is located in Sonagacchi, the largest and most infamous sex district in Kolkata, India. In India, prostitution is big business and thrives on exploitation and slavery, robbing the poor of dignity and innocence. Within a few square miles more than 10,000 women stand in line selling their bodies to thousands of men who visit daily. Many are trafficked from Bangladesh, Nepal and rural India. For others poverty has left them without options. The cries of their hungry children drive them to sell their bodies.
Freeset opened its doors in 2001 with 20 women brave enough to seize an opportunity to leave the sex trade behind. The Freeset business now produces 1,000 eco-friendly jute bags a day alongside organic cotton t-shirts. Consistent quality is important for Freeset to be a competitive, self-sustaining business that is able to break the cycle of poverty and exploitation for these women once and for all.
Freeset uses an “upside down” model that turns the normal principles of running a business on their head. Businesses generally choose the best people for a job and pay them the lowest possible wages. Here, women are employed on the basis of their need for freedom, rather than their qualifications – many have had little or no schooling.
The women are trained and paid around twice the going rate for an equivalent job elsewhere. As part of their employment package they have access to health insurance and a pension plan.
The women actively engage in running the business. They have their own committee which liaises with management to ensure their voices are heard. This committee has the final say over many internal decisions and issues relating to employees.
The transformation in women’s lives is clearly apparent, simply because they’ve been given a chance.
Every woman who finds freedom through Freeset also brings freedom to her family. They find hope for a brighter future and the means to make it a reality. As the business has grown, a positive community has emerged calling itself the ‘Freeset family’. This family not only supports its own members, but impacts on the wider community. The common understanding is “we’re in this together”.
The women are often dealing with health problems (including HIV/AIDS), and psychological effects from abuse and exclusion from society. This makes for a challenging workplace and much effort is put into creating a compassionate environment where the women are supported and their needs met. Today more than 180 women are on their journey to freedom at Freeset.
However, Freeset isn’t just about the transformation of individual lives; it’s also about transformation of the wider community. The Freeset women leave the sex trade but continue to live in their old rooms and neighbourhood as agents of change. The dream is that someday the largest, most infamous sex district in Kolkata will be transformed into a safe community that respects the dignity of women and offers new opportunities to their children.
All photos taken from Freeset’s website.