Freeset is located in Sonagacchi, the largest, most infamous sex district in Kolkata, India. 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.
At thirteen, Sonali* was stolen from her village, dragged to the back streets of Sonagacchi and sold into prostitution. Her first customer drugged and raped her unconscious body.
Bashanti*, a daughter of poverty-stricken parents, was sold into the sex trade by her mother, sacrificed so the rest of the family could eat.
In India, prostitution is big business and thrives on exploitation and slavery, robbing the poor of dignity and innocence.
* names changed
In 1999 Kerry and Annie Hilton left New Zealand with their four children and moved to Kolkata to work and live amongst the poor. Naively, they signed up for an apartment in the middle of the day. It was only when Kerry was taking a walk at night that he discovered they had moved into the largest red light area in the city, Sonagacchi. Their new neighbors were thousands of women forced into prostitution by trafficking and poverty.
To make a difference that would bring real freedom for these women, the Hiltons began to understand there needed to be a business alternative. Women could be trained with new skills for a new job and empowered with life-skills needed to appreciate freedom. After experimenting with different products and testing the market, they decided to make jute bags for the export market.
Birth of a Business
Freeset opened its doors in 2001 with twenty women brave enough to trust a couple of foreigners and seize the opportunity to leave the sex trade behind. Priya Mishra, an Indian doctor working in the community, played a key role in facilitating that trust and helping to grow the business.
It was hard work teaching unskilled women to sew at a quality acceptable for the export market. Some could barely use a pair of scissors and in those early days the average daily output was less than two bags each. Would you believe some of the bags were sewn inside out and upside down!
These problems have been over-come with training, a lot of patience and quality control systems. While many of the women are still not the fastest sewers, the business now produces around 1000 bags a day. 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.
The women are paid around twice the going rate for an equivalent job elsewhere and as part of their employment package have health insurance and a pension plan. A woman is employed full-time to ensure that staff are able to access their health insurance entitlements.
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 Freeset Trust is a charitable organization which operates alongside the business providing literacy classes, child care, budgeting and debt management services.
Today more than 190 women are on their journey to freedom at Freeset.
Learn more about the philosophy that drives Freeset.