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.

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