Jas recently spent three months volunteering with Freeset, starting with the Freedom Encounter and staying on to work with our production and education teams. She shares here about the profound effect the trip had on her.
The only photo I took during my visit to Freeset in 2012 was of the cracked sign outside their bags building. The ‘no photo’ policy meant that I had to rely exclusively on my memory for further snapshots. While many things about that first trip to Kolkata have paled into the recesses of my mind, Freeset remains as bright as the day I was there.
The image of women plaiting colourful strips of old sari and the concept that business is the best tool for freedom have been burnt into my memory. When I decided it was time to pack up and head to Asia, I knew that returning to Freeset had to be a part of my journey.
Arriving in early September, I first joined the Encounter programme, a life-changing three week course which draws people from all over the world to learn about doing business for freedom. We took a tour of the bags building on one of our first mornings and I was amused to notice that the sign is still broken, firmly hanging on the wall, as it had been six years ago.
In many ways, this is very fitting: Freeset is a steadfast, integral part of this damaged community and it does not crumble when it gets cracked. However, don’t be fooled if the still-cracked sign gives you the impression that nothing has changed in six years. The impact of Freeset has spread further and wider than I could ever have imagined and I am just itching to start writing a glorious list, but I must refrain because this is supposed to be the story of Freeset’s impact on me.
During the Encounter we visited Dhulian in Murshidabad, a town where Freeset employs 12 women who previously worked in the local red light area. After a long and bumpy ride, we stumbled out of the jeep into the breath-taking heat.
I remember the sun being so bright on the grey roads that it hurt my eyes. As Subhendu and Priya, the factory’s production managers, told us the story of how they moved to Dhulian from Kolkata with their children, it quickly became clear that the town is no half-way house, no compromise.
It is split into two communities: the bidi (cigarette) rollers and the brothel area. Both are characterised by poverty and suffering, and the town’s atmosphere is tangibly oppressive. Subhendu and Priya have made this place home and created a safe space for the women to start healing: an act of bravery and love which will impact me for the rest of my life.
That afternoon, Priya took several of us to meet the women that she has been building relationships with in Dhulian. As the thin sari was drawn aside to reveal the entrance to the brothel area, I felt panic closing in around me.
I am ashamed to say that I wanted to run, that the dark, narrow passage felt too oppressive. But my feet were moving and within moments we were inside, passing women, and girls too young to be called women, on either side. The community is built on bamboo struts, lifting them just high enough to escape the grey, swirling waters of the Ganges below. The women invited us to sit in a small, open area and we gathered in a circle on the bamboo floor. As we talked through Priya, one of their t-shirts caught my eye: ‘Being Human’, the pink material read.
As we left I breathed again, then turned and looked back. The sari which separated the outside world from the brothel community fluttered in the wind, translucent and apparently fragile. Poverty, shame and trauma hung in that doorway, masquerading rather poignantly as women’s clothing and denying those behind it the rights and chances which allow us to be human.
In the months since that moment, being at Freeset has taught me that breaking such bonds is incredibly complicated; a process that does not finish with a new job. Building loving, trusting relationships and a strong community is essential if lives are to change.
The promise of a different future is woven throughout the fabric of Freeset: in every product, every brick and every person who works here. The significance of the old saris used to make our jute bags is particularly impactful for me: what was called damaged and worthless is actually nothing of the sort; it is beautiful and has been chosen by the Freeset community.
Seeing and being a part of Freeset’s transformative nature is transformative in itself. The women have shown me that every wound can heal; everyone deserves the opportunity for healing, and a future in which they are allowed to be human.
And this healing should extend to the pimps, oppressors, gang-members and traffickers too. I have come to see that no one is the enemy and everyone is a product of their circumstances. The women of Freeset are beacons of hope, signifying a change in the circumstances of the red light community, and their light is for everyone.
Volunteering my professional skills here is an amazing privilege, but the most impactful thing for me is simply being human with these women who have been through hell and come out full of dignity and wisdom.
Never before has cutting an onion for someone or receiving a cup of tea had such meaning; small acts of service became methods of showing and receiving love in a way which rises above the lack of a common language. This is one of the most special times in my life, and will leave me changed forever.
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