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How One Textile Brand Is Helping Women Exit India’s Sex Trade

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How One Textile Brand Is Helping Women Exit India’s Sex Trade

By Daniela Frendo

In the grimy narrow alleys of Kalighat, women wearing colorful dresses, their faces plastered with makeup, stand in the doorways of tiny mud houses. Most of them had little choice but to move into this poverty-stricken area, where clean water is scarce and hygiene nonexistent. Their survival, and that of their undernourished children, relies on Kalighat’s thriving sex industry.

In India, many marginalized women turn to prostitution in the absence of economic alternatives, while others are forced into the profession by their husbands. One of the oldest red light districts in Kolkata, Kalighat is run by a shadowy network of pimps, madams and gangsters, who lure women into prostitution at an early age. Children are born into extreme poverty, and girls often end up following in the footsteps of their mothers.

There are around 1,000 women engaged in Kalighat’s sex industry, where prostitutes typically make between $3 and $5 per hour. These oppressive conditions of sex workers in Kolkota’s red-light district was what propelled a group of four women, who visited the city in 2009, to embark on a mission to help prostitutes exit the trade.

There are sadly ~1,000 women in Kalighat's #sex industry. Here's how you can #help. #India Share on X
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One of the co-founders, Colleen Clines, with Anchal Artisans. Photo courtesy of Anchal Project

Offering Alternatives To Exploitative Work

In March 2009, four graduate students in Architecture traveled to Kolkata for a seminar on design in the developing world. The harsh realities which they witnessed in the city’s red-light areas left an indelible mark on them, and in the same year, they founded Anchal Project to address the exploitation of women in marginalized communities.

Anchal Project was set up with the aim to create careers in textiles for commercial sex workers. While in India, the founders met Urmi Basu, whose small non-profit New Light  helps victims of sexual exploitation find alternative employment. In partnership with New Light, Anchal started raising money to buy the first set of sewing machines and provide a stipend for the women employed by the NGO.  By 2013, Anchal had created 90 artisan jobs for women who had left India’s sex trade. The latest project, Designing Colorful Change, is set to employ 35 new women in natural dyeing, while offering further training for the current 100 artisans.

So how are careers in textiles empowering women in India’s marginalized communities?

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Anchal artisans. Photo courtesy of Anchal Project

Helping Women Gain Financial Independence

It is estimated that there are over 3 million sex workers in India, and the country has the third largest number of people infected with HIV. Women enter the sex trade due to extreme poverty, lack of education, and a shortage of economic opportunities. In fact, 85% percent of Anchal artisans claim that they resorted to prostitution after being unable to find alternative employment. As a result, Anchal has been designing new textile initiatives and projects to create more job opportunities for marginalized women. So far, Anchal has employed over 150 women, of whom 70% are the main breadwinners in their family.

Anchal helps women from impoverished backgrounds become self-sufficient by providing sustainable employment and paying them a fair-trade wage. In order to expand its positive impact beyond Kolkota, Anchal has collaborated with established NGOs on programs that seek to create jobs for sexually exploited women in other parts of India. The most successful of these programs has been the Stitch x Stitch project, in which 77 women from Ajmer work on hand-stitched products using eco-friendly fabrics.

Anchal has also had the opportunity to partner up with actress and human rights activist America Ferrera to launch a collection of beautifully embroidered scarves, while raising awareness on India’s sex trade. This initiative helped fund 15 artisans for an entire year.

While Anchal ensures that artisans earn a competitive income, it also understands the importance of equipping women with the necessary skills and resources to help them eradicate gender inequality and social injustice in their communities.

Here's how one org is helping #women by providing sustainable employment. #india Share on X
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Anchal artisans. Photo courtesy of Anchal Project

Providing Tools For Women To Become Change Agents

Besides helping commercial sex workers land a job in textiles, Anchal also prepares its artisans for future careers by providing the life skills needed to become independent. This includes workshops in entrepreneurship, leadership, self-defense, and financial planning. Anchal’s artisans also receive free health services, counseling, and constant support from project leaders.

This holistic approach to women empowerment is helping artisans take a leading role in their communities and stamp out oppression. Anchal is currently working with Vatsalya, an established NGO based in Ajmer, Rajastham, to provide entrepreneurial training to sex workers in the region. These life-changing opportunities not only make it possible for women to lead independent lives, but they also enable them to invest in their children’s education and future.

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Traditional Weekender created by Anchal artisans. Photo courtesy of Anchal Project

How You Can Help 

Anchal is able to support its artisans with steady incomes and create more job opportunities through seed funding, donations and product sales. The online shop features a collection of colorful throws, quilts, pillows, scarves and bags made from vintage cotton saris. Money made from online purchases is invested in educational workshops, healthcare benefits, and professional training for the artisans.

We’ve picked some beautiful accessories for your next trip, all of which are made with care by Anchal’s talented artisans.

Want to help #women from #India leave the sex trade? Here's how you can. Share on X

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Weekend bags make an ideal accessory for road trips and short breaks. This gorgeous bag and similar ones are made by artisans in Ajmer using cotton saris.

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These square scarves come in a variety of colors and are perfect for spicing up a plain outfit. Each scarf features the hand-stitched name of the artisan who produced it.

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Produced by women artisans in Ajmer, this small pouch is ideal for packing your toiletries and make up. Each pouch comes with a unique design and contains the personal touch of its maker.

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Small pillows are always useful when you’re taking long journeys or spending the night at the airport. Anchal’s artisans create pillows from overdyed cotton saris.

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This one-of-a-kind kantha throw has been traditionally handcrafted by an artisan in Ajmer using six layers of vintage sari.

Do you have more information on how people can help end the sex trade in India? Please share in the comments below! 


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Daniela Frendo

Daniela Frendo is a travel writer and photographer from Malta. No matter how often she travels, she keeps breaking out in cold sweats at boarding gates. She is terrified of flying, but willing to try out stomach-churning delicacies wherever she goes. Her trips aren’t complete without doing a bit of trekking, experiencing local culture and getting a souvenir t-shirt.She has a degree in Communications and divides her time between teaching English and writing for different publications, including her own travel blog

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