'Freedom business' offers Indian sex workers alternative to red light district

November 22, 2016 9:04 AM EST

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By Anuradha Nagaraj

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian quilt and bag company which employs women trapped in the sex trade has appointed two former sex workers to its board, its co-founder said, calling the move a first in the industry.

Sarah Lance, who helped to set up Sari Bari a decade ago to provide sex trafficking victims with alternative means of earning a living, said the company had also invited 19 of its women workers to become shareholders in the firm.

The company, located on the fringes of Sonagachi, Kolkata's red light district, employs 120 women to stitch old saris together to create quilts and bags - with each item named after the woman who made it.

"It is their company," said Lance, who won the 2016 Opus prize for non-profit innovation and humanitarian work.

The 10-year-old company, which calls itself a "freedom business", is one of many enterprises in India that aim to help by providing economic opportunities for victims of sex trafficking.

"The idea of the business grew in response to the fact that girls who were rescued and sent to shelter homes were asked to leave after they turned 18 or once their cases were over," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"They went back to the same situation which made them vulnerable to trafficking."

Initially, the women had to be convinced to work for Sari Bari.

"Now we have a waiting list of women wanting to join us," Lance said, adding that the company planned to hire another 150 women in the next five years.

In September, the National Crime Records Bureau said cases of human trafficking in India increased to 6,877 cases last year, from 5,466 in 2014 - a jump of more than 25 percent.

Cases of minors being sold into prostitution increased by 53 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year, with West Bengal state, where Kolkata is located, accounting for 82 percent of the total cases registered in 2015.

Former sex workers Chaya and Supriya, who asked to be identified only by their first names, were unanimously voted to Sari Bari's board at a meeting in September.

Campaigners said providing survivors of human trafficking with an alternative source of income to sex work was crucial in preventing them from being re-trafficked.

Cultivating pride in new skills was also important in helping survivors to recover from their ordeal, experts said.

"That sense of pride is actually very important," said Sarfaraz Ahmed Khan, an assistant professor at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences who has written manuals on efforts to combat trafficking.

Khan said it was difficult for sex trafficking survivors to do "just any other job".

"Besides economic stability, they are looking for a dignified life. These opportunities give them that," he said.

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, editing by Alisa Tang and Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)



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