Celebrating 15 Years
It was a festive day. Around 300 people danced together celebrating 15 years of freedom! It was an occasion to remember the lives that have been transformed and the hope that has taken root as a result of this freedom business we call Freeset.
A celebration of freedom
Guests wore their best saris, colorful decorations adorned the building, music played, people danced and generous servings of delicious Bengali food were consumed. Despite sporadic rain, around 300 people gathered together at the Gateway building to celebrate Freeset’s 15th birthday!
Proceedings began with recognition of the 20 women who started Freeset. A very special 15th birthday video was shared, reflecting on the many milestones and incredible people who have been part of the Freeset story so far.
The journey started in 1999 when Kerry and Annie Hilton - a couple from NZ - made the decision to move to Kolkata to work with the poor in Sonagacchi, the city’s largest red-light area.
The people of this community had already experienced many foreigners come offering to help, before leaving along with their unfulfilled promises. When Kerry and Annie shared their idea of establishing a bag-making factory to offer job alternatives to the community, one of the first questions asked was, “Why should we trust you?”
On September 17, 2001, Freeset opened its doors with 20 women who found the courage to trust two foreigners and their vision for business to bring freedom into their neighborhood.
It was a challenging time with no guarantees the women could learn to make the bags and no certainty the business would succeed.
Fundamental to Freeset’s vision is a shared desire to see more women offered opportunities for freedom. After 15 years, there are over 250 women employed by Freeset enterprises in West Bengal, India. These are exciting times!
In Kolkata, Freeset Bags & Apparel now not only offers jobs making bags, but also sewing T-shirts, screen printing and opportunities to move into supervisory and administrative office positions.
Freeset is now no longer confined to Kolkata. With the realization that many women in Kolkata’s red-light areas have been trafficked from the Murshidabad region of West Bengal, time was invested into understanding how business opportunities can be created in areas known to be a source of trafficked women. The rationale: if you can economically empower women vulnerable to trafficking, you can reduce the risk of them being trafficked.
The Freeset Business Incubator was formed in 2011 to provide a framework for multiplying efforts to generate new freedom businesses. This includes bringing groups to the region for a 3 week “Freedom Encounter” course that exposes people to the possibilities and realities of setting up and running a freedom business.
Freeset Fabrics (established 2014 in the Murshidabad region) was the first business set up with the Incubator’s support. Women learn to hand-weave fabric and are employed to make artisan scarves for export – all with the goal of empowering them with fairly paid employment and reducing their risk of being trafficked. With a waiting list of over 500 women looking for jobs, the demand for the opportunities offered by Freeset Fabrics is huge!
There are other freedom businesses starting up in different parts of West Bengal too. There’s a new sewing unit getting under way in Dhulian, a town bordering Bangladesh and a project looking for innovative ways to use farming as a means of empowerment based near Berhampore in Murshidabad.
A new building was purchased last year right at the entrance of Sonagacchi – it has been nicknamed the Gateway building. Importantly it provides space for future growth, but also a valuable presence in the red-light area - it is a beacon of hope in a sea of darkness.
None of this would have been possible if those first 20 women hadn’t had the courage to make a bold leap of faith.
Dreams for the future…
So, where to now? There is much to celebrate in the lives that have been transformed over the past 15 years, but it isn’t enough. Freeset has a bold vision for creating 1000 jobs by 2020.
Happy Birthday Freeset--may our community continue to transform into a place where freedom rings from every corner.