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In Business for Freedom
01 October 2012

By John Sinclair

oct_freeset3.jpg 
                                                                                                      Photo: Freeset

Every year, thousands of women, left vulnerable by poverty, are trafficked into the sex trade. It’s not a choice the women make themselves, but a choice made by others - maybe a family member, or perhaps a stranger trading on the promise of a better life. It takes just a moment for a woman to be robbed of her future and have it replaced with a lifetime of stigma. Fear, shame and physical violence ensure she will remain trapped.

Freeset is a business in Kolkata, India born out of a desire to provide these women with a simple choice that was previously unavailable. Menaka, who was sold into the sex trade by a “friend” at the age of 13 explains, “The difference between the jobs offered by Freeset and other jobs is that women in the line [sex workers] are considered totally untouchable by any other employer in our society. We are not even considered regular human beings in this society. In contrast, Freeset is providing an identity to these women by offering them jobs. Freeset is more about freedom than just a mere job.”

Freeset has been offering these “freedom jobs” and training women to make bags since 2001. Beginning with just 20 women, this has grown to over 170 today.

oct_freeset02.jpg 
  Apart from not being able to read or write, some
  women struggle with even the most basic skills
  like using a pair of scissors.          Photo: Freeset

When women arrive at Freeset, they are generally uneducated, unskilled and suffering from poor health, having been deprived of an education and subjected to unspeakable horrors. Apart from not being able to read or write, some women struggle with even the most basic skills like using a pair of scissors.

For Bijoya, the opportunity to learn was itself transformative, “I will never forget those days because it was the first time in my life there was something that I could hold on to. There was lots of hope.”  The training was a revelation for Brinda, “In the beginning my confidence level was zero. I could never imagine that one day I would really be good at sewing. However bad my sewing was, I was always encouraged to continue my work and never feel bad about it.” 

Literacy is a crucial component of the training for many women who have never even learned how to write their own name. For Piyali, it opened up her world, “The literacy training I got has been very useful for me. Now I can sign my name, write my address and read numbers, as well as train and bus destinations. Before the training, I was not at all confident to leave my house. Now I am very independent.”

oct_freeset002.jpg 
  There is a firm realization that without quality
  products which people want to buy, there is
  no business.                                         Photo: Freeset

Daughters of sex workers are also offered employment to ensure they are not pushed into prostitution themselves.  Dhurjati started at Freeset in her late teens, “All the time, there were customers in our room. When I was young, it was hard to study because of this. I had to stay outside and play in the street with friends and when I was home I had to help around the house so I couldn’t even study then. As I grew older it got even worse – many customers wanted me.”

 “Freeset has brought a big change in my life. I didn’t need to stay in my room all day – I was away at work for 8 hours – that was great. I got a salary, so slowly I could save. I was able to help my mother, which meant she didn’t need to have so many customers. I got married with my own savings by working for Freeset. My mother didn’t have enough money to pay for my marriage, so basically I would say a girl like me got married and has a family only because of Freeset.”

Significant health problems affect the women’s quality of life. There is a widespread problem with anaemia and unsurprisingly sexually transmitted diseases are common. An onsite nurse is employed full-time to help facilitate medical check-ups for the women and to ensure they follow through on any prescribed treatment plans.

While Freeset is focused on the well-being and empowerment of the women, there is a firm realization that without quality products which people want to buy, there is no business. The more the business flourishes, the greater the number of women that can be employed and the better they can be paid.
Starting with simple jute bags in the early years, the range of products manufactured has steadily grown. Today, the women sew everything from jute conference bags to cotton pencil cases and shopping bags to 100% organic cotton t-shirts for customers all around the globe.

Helping bring those two aspects of the business together is Mahendra, the Production Manager, “I always try to place someone who is not good at something with a woman more capable. I never listen to them if they say, ‘I can’t do it.’ I say, ‘You didn’t know how to run the machine at all they day you came here. But now you are good at sewing’. So I encourage them to learn from someone who is good.”

Today you will find women braiding beautiful recycled sari handles, laughing while they print t-shirts, singing as they work at their sewing machines, proudly announcing at days end with a big smile how many bags they have sewn.

Ranjana, one of Freeset’s trainers sums the business up when she says, “Freeset is the women’s business because it is a business for their freedom. Freeset is a promise of freedom to women in the community.” A sentiment echoed beautifully by Joyeeta, “I never look back to the life I had before. I am a free person now.”

Learn more about Freeset at www.freesetglobal.com

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the women

 
 
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