Six or seven thousand women work as prostitutes in Sonogachi, Kolkata’s red-light district – most have been tricked, sold or forced into the sex industry by poverty and many have been trafficked.
For 16 years a fair-trade business called Freeset has been offering alternative employment to the women, making jute bags and t-shirts.
Pip Rea works with the Freeset project Tamar, which has a drop-in community centre offering the women help with healthcare, literacy and job training.
Rea says women most commonly enter the sex industry after being misled by offers of other work, such as cleaning or being a maid, or by coercion.
“Sometimes a man goes into a village and befriends the woman – he can see that she is young, she’s vulnerable, and she comes from a poor family. He befriends her, forms a relationship, they have a village marriage ceremony. He takes her away to his family and ends up selling her.”
Alternative work for women in the area is very scarce, Rea says.
Once she came across a grandmother bringing her 17 year old grand-daughter to enter the sex trade. When Rea asked the grandmother how she’d feel about the girl working at Freeset instead, the woman started crying and touched her feet.
“There is the recognition that this is not a choice. This is not about making money. It’s about survival and lack of opportunities.”
Once in the industry, the women are often enslaved by debt.
“The trafficking of women in the commercial sex industry is a huge money-maker, just not for the girls. Any ways they’ll use to keep girls there they’ll use – and debt is a major one.”
Rea says it’s important that the women choose for themselves whether and how they leave the industry.
“When you talk about sex trafficking as a concept, globally, the response is ‘Okay, we need to rescue them and pull them out’, but the reality is – at least in Kolkata – it’s much more complex than that.
“Definitely there is a need for rescue – especially underage girls and trafficked women – but when you get to three years involved in a trade and a woman has regained some choices within that, I think it’s really important that she has the choice put back in her hands about how she wants to exit and when she wants to exit, that she becomes empowered through the process rather than us coming in and saying ‘This is horrible place. You shouldn’t be here, you didn’t choose to be here. I’m going to pull you out and put you somewhere else'. I think that does a disservice to all that she’s gone through and all that she’s fought for in that space.”
Freeset focuses more on building relationships with women who are already established in the trade - and their madams, says Rea.
“A lot of the madams were once girls who were trafficked into the sex trade. When you get to around 35 you start having less customers, you earn less money. Because of the stigma around sex work and prostitution in Kolkata there’s no alternatives for you. You have a limited number of options. One that has the most money, most security is becoming a madam. So a lot of the women… they’re women, they’re sympathetic to other women.”
Seeing the impact of her work is what keeps her in Kolkata, she says.
“I think it’s crazy that in 2017 human trafficking still exists, I think it’s absolutely insane… As somebody whose passionate about social justice, passionate about women’s rights, passionate about feminism, how can I not be involved?”