Freeset Bags from India

is the artisan in the spotlight this week

Within a few square miles in Sonagacchi, Kolkata's most infamous red light district, more than 10,000 women stand in line to sell their bodies. Many are trafficked from Bangladesh, Nepal, and rural India, where poverty and desperation have left them or their families with few options. In that same neighborhood, a fair trade business offers employment and way out for some of these women: Freeset Bags.

The idea for Freeset formed when Annie and Kerry Hilton moved with their four children from New Zealand into the Sonagacchi district, not knowing its reputation, and discovered a calling to try to rescue some of their new neighbors who were forced into prostitution. In 2001 they set up shop with 20 women willing to leave their life on the streets for the opportunity to learn a new trade, making jute and organic cotton bags. Their real business, however, is freedom, as their slogan reminds us.

Sonali was 13 when she was kidnapped from her village, drugged and dragged to the back streets of Sonagacchi where she was sold into prostitution and raped. Bashanti's poverty-stricken parents sold her into the trade so that the rest of the family could eat. Their names were changed to protect their identity, but Freeset is trying to protect other girls just like them from that fate.

Now these young women are part of a fair trade business model that allows them to actively engage in running the business, which includes dealing with health issues and the mental effects of abuse, along with other practical considerations. The Freeset women leave the sex trade but continue to live in their old neighborhood as examples and agents of change, with the hope that someday the disreputable slum will become a safe community that respects women and offers new opportunities to their children.

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