Freeset combats poverty and sex trafficking in Sonagachi

When Kerry and Annie Hilton and their four children moved to Kolkata (Calcutta), India in 1999 with a mission to live with the poor, they didn’t realize that two years later they would be changing the lives of over 180 women. When they first moved into their three-bedroom apartment, they were astonished to realize how much the neighborhood changed at night. During the day, Kolkata may seem like a normal, albeit more impoverished, Indian neighborhood. At night, however, Kolkata became the largest red light district in the city of Sonagachi. Every night, thousands of women were being forced to sell their bodies either by traffickers or because of poverty.

In 2001, the Hiltons began to change the lives of some women in Kolkata a little bit at a time. Starting with a small group of women willing to put their trust in Kerry and Annie, the Hiltons were able to help some women leave behind the sex trade and find an opportunity for a better life. The Hiltons used business to help women learn skills to get more experience for future job opportunities as well as life skills that would allow them take the greatest advantage of their newfound freedom. After testing several products for production, the Hiltons decided to make jute (a biodegradable fabric) bags.

Although many of the women first taking part in the Freeset Company, started by the Hiltons, were not trained to sew at the level of quality that the market demanded, the program began training women to learn the skills they would need to change their lives. At first business was slow, as the women were only able to produce a few dozen bags a day. However, today they are able to create and sell about one-thousand quality-assured bags. The women who take part in the organization are paid at almost twice the rate of a job of similar skill requirements and quality, while also being offered health insurance and a pension plan.

Not only are these women able to help themselves, Freeset gives them the opportunity to help their families. The women who work with Freeset are able to better provide for their children and also allow them to receive more training for getting jobs in the future as well as gain more life skills and education. The Freeset Trust works alongside the Freeset organization provide more opportunities for the women by offering educational developments such as reading and writing, monetary management, and basic health care. The Freeset Trust aids families by providing childcare for working mothers during the day and making health food and some education available. For those who have problems paying bills or loans, the Trust has created Mukhti Budgeting Services that gives people advice on taking control of loans and establishing a re-payment plan.

In order to contribute to the Freeset program, Puget Sound hosted a Freeset Fest on March 28 at 4:00pm in Marshall Hall. During the event, there were bands playing and a variety of items being sold including artwork, baked goods, and other donated articles. All profits went to the Freeset program to further their cause and liberate the women in Kolkata.