Weaving Freedom in Rural India


Traveling to Rural India is like walking into a living  National Geographic article. Men walk past wearing straw hats and carrying large bales of hay on their head. Women wear bright saris and keep their heads covered to passers-by. You are greeted everywhere by cows and goats. (and sometimes monkeys!)













The main two crops grown in rural West Bengal are rice and jute.

Rice paddies.


Jute crops

This week, I was visiting with Freeset Fabrics in Murshidabad. These factories, which train women in traditional weaving, were created to help impoverished women in this area, which is one of the greatest sources of sex trafficking in the State of West Bengal. Most of the families here survive off of subsistence farming, which only provides for a few months of the year. Weaving means that these women can provide for their families year-round without having to worry about selling their bodies.

“If I did not work here at Freeset Fabrics, my family and I would all die from poverty.” – Aruna

20170708_105546Within 2 years of weaving scarves, Aruna is now one of the best weavers at Freeset Fabrics in rural West Bengal. She’s able to buy nutritious food for her two daughters, pay for her mother’s operation, and install a water tap in her home. Now, she plans to build a new home; she has dreams! Despite being in a culture that struggles with seeing women as equal to men, Aruna realized for herself that she is equal to a man. She understands her value as an individual and as a woman now. (1)

We cleaned up the whole factory!

In India, “Every stage of existence – birth, betrothal, marriage, death – is marked with gifts of cloth. . . As a result, women’s wardrobes are like fabric archives of their lives, recalling significant relationships and events. Gifts of cloth forge new relationships and sustain older ones.” (2) Thus, it makes sense that Freeset would choose the path of textiles to offer freedom to women in rural West Bengal.


(1) “Freeset Fabrics: Our journey so far.” Freeset – News. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2017. <http://freesetglobal.com/news/98/80/Freeset-Fabrics-Our-journey-so-far&gt;.

(2) Tarlo, Emma. “Life’s Great Pageant.” V & A MagazineWinter 2015: n. pag. Print.


Principles of Fair Trade: The Freeset Example

I first learned about these 10 principles of fair trade when I saw them hanging up all over the walls at my summer home, Freeset Bags & Apparel in Kolkata, India. Freeset, which provides education and alternative employment to former sex workers from the Sonagachi red light district of Kolkata, is a great example of these fair trade principles working for the benefit of others.

Freeset - Fair Trade and Organic Certified
image source: http://freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/fair-trade
  1. Opportunities for disadvantaged producers
    Freeset’s main focus is giving women in the sex trade a choice. Many of these women are born into the trade. They may be second or third generation workers; with little-to-no formal education, they often have no choice but to follow in the footsteps of those around them. Others are trafficked and sold into the trade, often by family members.

    Freeset has also started new businesses in rural India from areas where women and girls are frequently trafficked from. Additionally, the Freeset Trust provides the Tamar Community Center, which allows any of the women of the Sonagachi district to come and learn numeracy and literacy.

  2. Transparency & accountability.

    When it comes to transparency, anyone can set up a tour of the factory on weekdays to see what the working conditions are like for these women: http://freesetglobal.com/contact/visiting. Additionally, by having a “Fair Trade Guaranteed” standard awarded to them by the World Fair Trade Organization, they are held accountable by an outside source to adhere to these 10 principles of fair trade.

    Accountability is becoming increasingly important for all businesses, not just those that consider themselves “fair trade.” There is a societal push for companies to listen too all their stakeholders, not just their shareholders. According to Freeset’s website, “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.” (1)

    We are all in this together
  3. Fair trading practices.

    Fair trading is good trading. Not only does fair trade adhere to all trade laws of both the country it belongs to and the country it is going to, but it also ensures pricing that is both competitive to its buyers and value-driven enough to provide fair wages to its constituents. The majority of Freeset’s business is with international partners, and so fair pricing is a big part of their fair trading process (and a large part of what I’m working on this summer).

  4. Fair payments

    The revenues from Freeset Bags & Apparel go directly to the women, providing fair wages, health insurance, and retirement plans. 

  5. No child or forced labor.

    No woman is made to come work at Freeset; there are no raids or “rescue missions” into Sonagachi. Rather, by building relationships with the women there, those that want to seek freedom from prostitution are invited in to become part of the story at Freeset. I have heard a story of one of these women asking permission from her “madam” to come work for Freeset; her madam said yes, that it would be good for her. This woman then danced around and told all the other girls working the line that they could come with her and find freedom too.

  6. No discrimination, focus on women’s rights, and gender equity.

    In addition to the former sex workers, there are also several male nationals working at Freeset. This helps to create healthier working relationships between women and men living in Kolkata, especially for the women who have been abused by men for most of their lives.

    The majority of workers, though, are women from Sonagachi — nearly 250. Every morning before work, they gather together for singing and words of encouragement; the variety of saris makes for a scene more colorful than any garden you’ve ever been to.

    Freeset group photo - look how big we have grown
    Old photo | freesetglobal.com
  7. Good working conditions.

    These women come from work which had no set hours, no guarantee of rest, and limited rights. Now, they still work in a hot climate, but Freeset provides ceiling fans and filtered water to help offset the heat. They have a set schedule from 10-7 Monday-Saturday (plus occasional paid overtime), and a guaranteed day of rest on Sundays. The women laugh and chat together while they do their work. There’s childcare services, so they don’t have to worry about their small children. There are two set cha tea breaks at 12 and 5, and an hour for lunch from 2-3.

  8. Capacity building.

    As mentioned before, the Tamar Community Center provides any interested woman in the area the opportunity to learn numeracy and literacy. Freeset intentionally targets the least educated women with the least opportunities so that they can train them in a new skill. There are many different stages in manufacturing a bag, including sewing, screenprinting, and finishing work.

    Older women who have spent their lives in the trade and thus might not have many fine motor skills may be trained to do finishing work on bags, cutting off stray threads and making sure they look beautiful. Still others will gain advanced training using a sewing machine when manufacturing tee shirts. Additionally, when training for their new jobs, women receive training in both numeracy and literacy. I heard a story of one girl who, after her training, figured out just how much she had been getting swindled in change at the market — and who now knew how to fight back.

  9. Promoting fair trade.

    Despite the increasing number of fair trade companies based out of India, there is little domestic demand for “fair trade” products specifically. However, that is changing. There is an increasing interest in eco-conscious products (one element of fair trade), as well as an increasing interest in strong, socially conscious brands among older, richer women of India. One part of the work Freeset is doing is breaking in to the Indian market, with a strong emphasis on the importance of Fair Trade principles.

  10. Respect for the environment.

    There are many different elements of Freeset’s products that are ecologically-conscious. The jute shopping bags they manufacture are much more earth-friendly than plastic bags, taking only 2-3 years to decompose rather than the 1000 years that plastic takes. (2) (And, being surrounded by plastic in the streets of Kolkata, this is very visceral for me.) The cotton in their Tees is “GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified 100% organic, which means it is good for the grower and for you.” (3) The jute also all comes from local growers. In the Kolkata facility, they use only water-based ink for screen printing, avoiding harmful petro-chemicals and compounds. (4)

Teacups - Womens Quarter Sleeve
100% Organic cotton goodness. | freesetusa.com

Hopefully that information has inspired you to become a more conscious consumer! You can check out Freeset’s products here: https://freesetusa.com/collections (USA customers only; poke around a bit and you can find distributors for other countries)


(1) “Freeset – Our Philosophy.” Freeset – Our Philosophy, freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/our-philosophy. Accessed 3 July 2017.

(2) “Freeset – FAQ.” Freeset – FAQ, freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/faq. Accessed 3 July 2017.

(3) “Sustainable, people-Centered products.” Freeset – Fair Trade & Organic, freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/fair-trade. Accessed 3 July 2017.

(4) “Organic Cotton.” Organic Cotton, freesetglobal.com/tees/organic-cotton. Accessed 3 July 2017.


The Red Lights of Bowbazar: Freedom through Craftmanship

In my continuing journey meeting with social businesses around Kolkata, India, today I visited the Loyal Workshop, an ethical leather goods business in Bowbazar. Bowbazar is less infamous internationally than Sonagachi, but it is still the second-biggest red-light district in Kolkata, harboring around 1500-2000 women. It is also more thinly spread out in little pockets, making legal enforcement more difficult.


The company employs 18 women, all former prostitutes from Bowbazar. They are trained to hand-sew high-quality, ethically-sourced leather for leather goods during 6 months of paid training. For the first 3 months, they work part-time, and then in the afternoon they go back to working in the streets. Then, for the next 3 months, they work full-time. The hope is, based on positive feedback from a similar structure at another local freedom business, Sari Bari, that these women will be drawn to the respect they receive at Loyal Leather and want to choose a new life.

Machine cutting the leather for the women to sew
Goodstead satchel
The finished product

As we sat on the floor of the factory with monsoon rain gently trickling outside, one of the employees told us about the challenges of measuring the economic impact of leaving or staying in prostitution. Age is a consideration, as well as ethnic background and the nature of their pimp, for how much they can really make. As with many “freedom businesses” in Kolkata, women at Loyal Leather are all paid the same wage regardless of skill. Because of this, of the women working their some gain a pay raise while others make less than they did as a prostitute (on paper, that is). But, he continued, there are other economic factors to consider. Because prostitution is illegal in India, these prostitutes are often not able to open savings accounts, get credit from reputable sources, or have state healthcare. They often find themselves in a cycle of debt to local pimps and others who take advantage of them. Having reliable, legal income allows them yet another degree of freedom.

Shop Loyal Workshop: https://www.theloyalworkshop.com/store-selling-ethical-leather-goods/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theloyalworkshop

Shomota India: Social Enterprise for Gender Equality

In India, whenever a girl menstruates, she is very often shamed and isolated until her period is over. In more traditional environments, anything she touches becomes unclean, so often these girls and women will spend several days isolated in a corner of their homes or in a separate hut. Many of the girls who are fortunate to be in school will skip classes until they are no longer menstruating. Buying pads is a shameful, secretive process. Thus, girls’ access to education and social development is greatly affected.

Not only are periods in India a gender equality issues, but they are also an environmental one. With waste very often being thrown into the street or into the water system, feminine products create a large amount of waste that didn’t exist in India when all they used were scraps of saris. Not to mention that the population of India is growing exponentially every single day.

A third major problem for Indian women living in marginalized communities, such as in many parts of Kolkata, is that they cannot find fair wages and treatment in their work. This is why many women, especially those without formal education, turn to the sex trade, not seeing any alternatives for gainful employment.

Enter Shomota, which strives to address all three of these issues for women in India. I was fortunate to have been introduced to this social enterprise at a visit to their factory in Kolkata today. Shomota  which means “equality” in the Bengali language used in this part of India, makes lovely reusable cloth menstrual pads out of Indian fabric and cotton lining. The proceeds from each pad go to three areas. First, they help subsidize the cost of the pads so that those living in marginalized communities can purchase them at a reduced price. Second, it supports programs to educate women both in colleges and in community centers in impoverished areas to learn more about their own bodies and the environmental effects that disposable pads have. This helps to reduce shame and stigma among these women. Third, it helps to provide training and fair wages to local women from vulnerable communities and helps them become artisans. You can see a few of these cloth pads in the woman’s lap on the left:


These products are not just for India, though. You can help support Shomota’s mission and buy one pad to help reduce your overall carbon footprint, or even convert fully to reusable and buy 5-7.

Shop here: https://www.world.shomota.com/

Learn more about Shomota: http://shomota.com/

Like them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/menstrualempowermentkolkata/

Introduction to Kolkata, India

When you first walk out of the airport into Kolkata at 4 in the morning, it will feel like you are walking into a sauna. The sound of car horns ring out constantly like a flock of migrating geese — you will soon learn that, unlike America, these honks are not angry, but lifesaving. Driving on the left side of the road, you notice that what would be a 2 car lane in America is a 4 or 5 vehicle lane here. Auto rickshaws, bikes, buses, motorcycles, and cars all compete for the same spots.


There are some interesting cultural do’s and don’t’s here:


  • Carry your chickens on the handles of your bicycle and keep them on a basket in the street until you kill and skin them in front of passers-by.
  • Let cows walk past you in the street undisturbed (or pat them on the head for a blessing).20170625_160933
  • Buy chai tea (চা, “cha”) from the chai-wallas on the street. It’s like 8 cents USD, and you get a cool clay cup (which you throw in the street when finished with).
  • Be covered in dust. Everything else is.


  • Bother buckling up if you’re in the backseat of a car. Either your buckle has been cut off the strap, or there’s nowhere to put it.
  • Wear sunglasses, unless you are a celebrity.
  • Let cute little urchin kids start hugging you. They will gang up on you and try to take your money, and you can’t fight back because you are laughing so hard from their cuteness.
  • Forget your umbrella. It’s monsoon season, so it rains once a day — and you can never predict when this will be.


India’s Tea Leaves: Not-So-Fair Trade?

“. . . fair trade is not only a bridge that shortens the economic distance between marginalized producers and consumers with disposable income. It is also a meaningful act of human connection, the possibility of sending a grateful smile across the globe, a little sign of hope. In our divisive and finger-pointing world, such a connection among people seems not so much a choice as a necessity for survival.” — Beatrice Hohenegger, “Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West” (2006) 


I recently finished reading the book “Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West.” Published in 2006, the end of the book described some of the atrocious labor conditions that Indian tea pickers experience. (India is one of the biggest growers and exporters of tea in the world) The author was optimistic that, because of the growing popularity of fair trade certification, conditions would increasingly become more humane for these workers. Wondering if this was the case, I decided to research how much things had improved.

Doing a quick news search, the first relevant article that came up was one from 2016, 10 years after the publication of this book. The discouraging title of this BBC article was “Indian Tea Workers’ Conditions Remain Very Poor.” (BBC) According to the article, “Tea workers are trapped in a cycle of dependence that began way back when the first tea estates were planted in India in the 1830s [by colonizers]. . . very little has changed since then.” Indian tea workers on small plantations still face problems with low wages, poor living conditions, and uncontrolled exposure to toxic pesticides.

About 50% of tea from India comes from small plantations. Because fair trade certification can cost over $2000, this can be an economic burden to these plantations, many of which can barely even meet the legal requirements of their own country regarding work conditions. And when these plantations are abandoned, it can create another humanitarian crisis, as people literally starve to death without the work. Many tea workers come from lower castes or persecuted minority groups, so finding new work is very difficult or even impossible for them.

Luckily, changes are slowly but steadily occurring. Organizations like Tea Promoters of India, which is also located in Kolkata, help to establish “an array of exciting projects that are part of their vision of a transformed tea industry where the farmers are empowered, making decisions, taking risks, building their own businesses and improving their lives and communities.” (Small Farmers Big Change)

Something you can do to help is to research your favorite tea company and see where they are getting their leaves from. If you find that the labor conditions of their tea workers are unacceptable, make your voice heard to the company through email or social media and make them accountable for providing better, more holistic economic support to the communities they get their tea from and who depend on them.

21st Century Slavery in Kolkata, India


Image credit: http://www.andyvc.com/ 

I just finished reading “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” It was a difficult book to consume, but I believe anyone that cares about human rights should read it. It chronicles the many challenges women face worldwide, including forced prostitution and trafficking, female genital mutilation (FGM), maternal mortality, honor killings, and rape as a tool of war.

This summer, I will be personally wrestling with one of those issues: forced prostitution and trafficking. In “Half the Sky,” this is referred to as “21st century slavery.” Across India and rural Bangladesh, girls are captured and trafficked as young as 8 or 9 to serve in brothels. Other girls follow after their mothers who worked in the brothel before them, not seeing any alternative for employment because of their lack of education. Many who try to leave the brothels often find themselves beat and raped, not only by their employers, but also potentially by the police of their town. Hundreds of thousands of girls and women find themselves with no choice but to prostitute themselves.

This happens all across the world, not just in Kolkata, India, but that is where I will be serving this summer.  I will be working with Freeset, a fair-trade social enterprise that offers alternative employment and education to women trapped in Kolkata’s sex trade. I will also be working with Safecity to help increase anonymous reporting of incidents of sexual harassment in public spaces in Kolkata. Safecity aims to make cities safer by encouraging equal access to public spaces for everyone especially women, through the use of crowdsourced data and technology.

You can help me raise my remaining expenses here.