Nearly 21 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, according to the International Labor Organization. Of that number, approximately 10 percent are forced into state labor. Of the remaining 18.7 million, nearly three-quarters are trapped in other forms of forced labor. A little over one in four are children and 55 percent are women and girls.
While those statistics boggle the mind, none is quite as heartbreaking as the 22 percent that are forced into sexual exploitation.
Though most Americans believe slavery to be a thing of the past, the harsh reality is it’s a thriving $150 billion a year industry. Modern-day slavery simply exists under a different name and no country is free, especially India.
When Shannon Keith took her second trip to India in 2005, what she witnessed in the red-light districts absolutely broke her heart. Working alongside the women there, she heard story after story firsthand of little girls being sold into slavery by families and orphans snatched off the street by pimps and rented out to the highest bidder. She met young mothers who were just trying to earn enough to feed their hungry children. She also met women who were being held against their will.
All longing for an escape, all desperate to survive, but without any other alternative. This was a life that had been chosen for them. There was little, if any, hope.
After all, they were the untouchables.
Though Keith had visited India once before, and witnessed much of the same in Nigeria during another trip, this time was different. Her heart was stirred like never before to do something to help, and a sudden realization crossed her mind — all kinds of help could be given to these women. Ultimately, however, because of the caste system into which they are born, she realized the only thing that would ever give them a true hand up out of their horrific situation would be to provide them with a way to support themselves and their children. Keith knew that a job is what they really needed, and with her background in corporate sales, she immediately knew this was something she just might be able to provide.
Without a single doubt in her mind, Keith immediately began to devise a plan. No market research was needed initially; the decision wasn’t a difficult one to make. India is known for its gorgeous, colorful textiles, so she purchased a bunch of fabric and headed home with an idea in mind. Women’s pajamas and loungewear would be the perfect thing, she thought. Simple to make, and something every woman loves.
Soon after she arrived home, Keith got her girlfriends on board. She purchased some simple patterns, held a sewing party and together, they created a simple design that would be easy enough to teach anyone with the desire to learn how to sew.
Then began the market research. How much would people be willing to pay for a simple, beautiful pair of pajamas? Would American women be compelled to support their sisters in India by purchasing them?
Soon, a nonprofit organization called the International Princess Project was formed, and Shannon Keith became a pioneer of sorts — the very heart and soul of her entire idea centered around employing women from the red-light districts in India who wanted a better life for themselves and their children. In 2005, little was known about the horrors of human trafficking, yet with a heart broken for women who suffer under such bondage, she forged ahead, determined to be successful.
In 2006, International Princess Project — now named Sudara, a word inspired by the Sanskrit word “Sundara,” which means “beautiful” — hired six women in their “first-ever sewing center partnership,” and began teaching them how to sew. Before long, the first pair of “punjammies” was made.
“Stitch by stitch,” says the Sudara website, “the women gained confidence not only in their newfound trade, but also in their newfound hope and freedom.”
Punjammies were a huge hit, and the nonprofit began to thrive over the next nine years — so much so that it soon became evident that something more than a nonprofit was needed. Finally, in 2015, the two entities separated, Keith purchased the side of the business that makes and sells loungewear, formed a B-Corporation and rebranded as Sudara, Inc. The 501(c)3 nonprofit, renamed Sudara Freedom Fund, remains in place and the mission of both remains united: job creation that provides a pathway out of sex slavery for women in India.
Sudara Freedom Fund helps to provide much needed housing, and education for the women who work in the sewing centers, and their families.
“The more pants we can sell,” Keith told Opportunity Lives, “the more shirts and robes and bracelets and other accessories that we can sell, the more jobs we can create, and that provides the opportunity for women who would otherwise have to sell their bodies for hire just to feed their family.”
Sudara works closely with trusted, carefully vetted partners in India. The company places very large orders — and pays premium prices.
“We overpay for our products on purpose,” Keith explained. “We pay a premium.” All proceeds go to help the women in India, who are paid an above fair trade wage in the sewing centers.
Because of Sudara, Inc. and the Sudara Freedom Fund, women in India who are suffering under modern day slavery now have a new hope — a way out. They are never forced to work in one of the Sudara sewing centers; they come because they want healing and a new beginning. Because women all over the world have chosen to purchase the beautiful products they are working so hard to make, they are providing for themselves a new life — a life of hope and freedom — and being given a new story to tell.
This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on April 14, 2016. Photo credit: Sudara.