Kundola’s story begins in Murshidabad, a district of West Bengal, and a high-risk area for human trafficking. She followed a sadly well-worn path that led to a brothel in Kolkata, but by a series of twists has now returned home to help other women like herself.
At the age of 10, Kundola stopped school to take up work, doing housework for a family who paid her only in food. Her father was an older man, unable to work much, and that food was vital to sustain the family.
When she was 13 years old her father told her it was time for her to get married; one less mouth to feed would be better for the large family. After the marriage ceremony she discovered that her husband was not a boy of her own age, but an older man. And she was not his first wife, but his 10th.
At this point in her storytelling, Kundola’s tears start to fall. She has bravely told parts of this story many times, but it is always hard to revisit the past.
“I loved my father very much, when he begged me to accept the marriage I did. From that day I often saw my father crying, so I kept to the arrangement, and went to live in my in-law’s house.”
Married life was not easy and Kundola found herself treated like a servant. After a short while, her mother-in-law sold her to a group of young men in the village. She was feeding the cows in the field when four of them surrounded her and sexually assaulted her. “I started to cry, saying ‘why are you doing this?’. One of them said, ‘your mother-in-law took money from us’. I was 13 years old.”
She took refuge with a trusted relative, but they tricked her into going to Kolkata where she believed a better future awaited her. There, she discovered she had been sold once again, but this time into forced prostitution in Sonnagachi, Kolkata.
“When I reached Kolkata, I saw there were many ladies with make-up and good clothes, and I asked, ‘who are they? Why are they here?’
“One lady explained the work and I refused. For one week I had a very tough time, again and again I refused to do it. But finally I had no other way, and I had to.”
Kundola’s family were dependant on the money she regularly sent back to the village, but they never asked her how she earned it.
It’s been 18 years since Kundola met Freeset founders Annie and Kerry Hilton. It began with a conversation on the street, where Kundola was standing in line waiting for customers, and the Hiltons were scouting a location for their new business.
Along with twenty other women, Kundola took the step of leaving the sex trade for a sewing job with Freeset. She recalls the day she first understood this new freedom: “Kerry talked to us about freedom and I didn’t know what it was. He explained that is meant not working in the line. I held his hand and said, ‘there is more money in the line but I don’t want to do it anymore’.”
Until recently her role was Kolkata based, with the Freeset community team, meeting with women working in the red-light area of Sonnagachi. She helped to establish an ‘oasis of peace’ in the middle of the neighbourhood, where women can drop in, drink tea, have their nails painted and relax in a safe place.
There women can consider the possibility of leaving the trade and working with Freeset. Kundola is passionate that girls from villages like hers should not go through the same painful experiences as she did.
Some years back Kundola recognised that poverty was the driver of sex-trafficking from the Murshidabad district. She wanted to do something to help women who are vulnerable to trafficking, and saw that an economic solution was needed to solve an economic problem.
“I asked Kerry – ‘what can we do for these women?’ And he said, ‘shall we go to Murshidabad?’ And from that time Freeset staff went to explore the area.”
In recent years three new Freeset business units have been established in the district, employing more than 80 women. All units are equipped with industrial sewing machines and provide training to sew Freeset products.
This year Kundola returned to live in her village in Murshidabad, and works between two of these Freeset business units as a community worker and mother figure. She provides support to women who, like her, are making the choice to return to their villages, as well as to the women who were at risk of being trafficked, and now work with Freeset.
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