2015… what a year it’s been!

2015… what a year it’s been!

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The flurry of Christmas is over. You’re full of turkey, you’ve hit the malls for post-Christmas sales, and the whirlwind of family gatherings are coming to an end.

In a few hours, you’ll say goodbye to 2015, and a whole new year will begin, filled with hopeful vision for what lies ahead.

But before the next 365 days start their course, take a moment to stop.

Pause. Breathe.

We’re taking a moment to look back and become thankful for all that’s happened. We’re not sure about you, but it’s seemed like somewhat of a chatoic, but amazing, year. We’ve welcomed more women into our family, launched new product lines, and pursued an opportunity to buy a new building. We’ve seen women regain their confidence as they’ve graduated from training, and we’ve seen others step out into leadership roles.   

At times, it’s felt like we have had to overcome some daunting feats… like raising $250,000 to open a new building. Such a huge target, and yet through generous support, we made it! Now, in 2016, we’ll welcome more women into freedom.

We just wanted to take a small moment to say thank you. Thanks for being such amazing customers, advocates and friends. Without you, this year would not have been what it is.

Here’s to 2016… may it be filled with bigger dreams, clear vision and uncontained freedom. 

Christmas in Kolkata

Christmas in Kolkata

 

Every family has their Christmas traditions, and Sari Bari is no different.

Each year, there’s a myriad of color and activity as the women celebrate this important time of the year. Out come the balloons, streamers, music, presents and food… lots of food. There’s dancing and joy in abundance.

We do Christmas Indian-style over here.

Christmas is not that big of a deal in Kolkata because it’s usually seen as any other festival. In the West, Christmas decorations go up at the end of November, and there’s always a buzz around the season, which crescendos into a big celebration. But over here, decorations go up only a few days before Christmas Day. It’s a quick event – you set up the decorations, you have the celebration, and then you take it all down.

Sari Bari is closed for Christmas Day, so the Sari Bari units have their own festivities in the week before Christmas. The night before the party, the women will stay back late from work to hang streamers and blow up balloons on their own time.

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The parties usually start with the women sharing ‘cha’ and snacks in the morning, often while singing Bengali Christmas carols. Managers lead the women in a time of reflection about the meaning of Christmas.

And there are gifts… no Christmas is complete without an exchange of gifts! Each year, there’s a different gift selected for the women, whether it’s a bracelet or shawl. But most years, managers hand-select a beautiful new sari for each woman. It’s a special time where the women are individually presented with a gift that’s been chosen, just for them.

One year we gave the women two silver bracelets, and many of the women kept one bracelet for themselves, but gave the other one away to a close friend or a daughter. It’s amazing to watch these women live such generous lives. And if you visit Sari Bari, you’ll notice many of the ladies wearing their bracelet each day!

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In true Christmas form, after gift giving, we eat. Everyone lines up to fill their bellies with food served from big silver pots, overflowing with food. And then it’s dancing time. Our prevention unit hosts the most lively dance party… they roll out the sound system and EVERYONE joins in. There’s so much laughter and joy. What a way to celebrate!

Merry Christmas from the Sari Bari family! We trust you and your families celebrate with full bellies, big smiles and thankful hearts.

Written by Nicole Peck

Could you take this life-changing risk?

Could you take this life-changing risk?

Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve taken the first step on a path, but you have no idea where it ends up. You’ve heard rumours that life is better at the end, but you’ve never seen it for yourself. Would you take the risk?

That’s what it’s like for the women who take their first, trembling step into freedom, and become trainees at Sari Bari.

For some of these women, they have never held a pencil and can’t read or write. They’ve never sewed anything in their life and even if they could, they can’t see well enough to thread a needle. Their families talk them out of starting a new job, and each day, people tell them they won’t succeed… that they’ll be back on the line by the end of the month.

And yet despite all these challenges, our trainees muster the incredible courage to start afresh and begin a six-month training process with us.

One of the biggest struggles for women transitioning out of the trade and into a different sort of work is learning to look at themselves in a different way,” says Melissa, Sari Bari’s Director of Aftercare (outgoing). “The general cultural message is that they’re ruined; that they’re damaged goods and there’s nothing for them beyond the life they’ve come from.”

It takes such incredible courage and self-determination for a woman to stand in defiance to what everyone is saying about her and believe that there is something else for her,” Melissa says.

You see this shift in the women from, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it’, to slowly believing in themselves and that they can do it. The women of Sari Bari reach out their hands and encourage the trainees. They say, ‘I was there once, I know it’s hard, but if I can do it, so can you’.”

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Sari Bari’s training involves many facets: job skills, education, mental health, life skill classes and health checks. The first three months of training is part-time to allow the women to adjust to having a work schedule.

The women come to us with all different educational backgrounds. Some women have had no education and don’t know a single Bengali letter, while others have had a 4th or 5th Grade education, but they’ve forgotten most of what they knew. And then very rarely, we’ve had women who have an education almost up to a high school standard,” Melissa says.

Sari Bari offers daily education classes that cater to whatever educational level the women have. So, for some who have no literacy, we teach Bengali letters and basic math. For women who have had access to education, we do reading comprehension or basic English. In the past, we’ve also taught basic computer skills.

Our goal is that every woman can write their own name so they can sign for their salary,” Melissa says. 

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Once a week, the women participate in a group mental health session, where they can build community with the other trainees. “We help them understand their emotions and rebuild self-respect,” Melissa says.

During training, the women also receive specialised classes on topics like women’s health, diabetes, nutrition and basic budgeting.

Health screening is another important aspect of training. “After a month, we take the women to have their eyes checked and then pay for glasses if they need them. At the end of training, we do Well Woman Check Ups, where we find all sorts of conditions like HIV, other STDs, cancer, thyroid issues and high cholesterol. Once we do the preventative check-up, the women can access any treatment through our company health insurance,” Melissa says.

But a major part of the training process is celebration.

At Sari Bari, we believe in celebration. In this reality, where there are many things to grieve and many things that break our hearts, celebration reminds us of hope and that transformation is possible,” she says.

In the first week of training, we celebrate the women’s freedom birthdays with a cake and a ‘Happy Birthday’ song. “We continue to mark that for every year. It’s a sacred time, as we call everyone together and look back. It gives them a chance to reflect on their own journey, which becomes a great source of encouragement to women who are newer on the journey.”

You have a chance to get involved in a trainees’ transformation.  A $30 donation will help us support a trainee for one month, and a $180 donation will support a trainee during her entire six-month training. If you’re in a position to give, we’d value your generous support!

Written by Nicole Peck

She’s a leader like no other

She’s a leader like no other

Gita was only 17 years old when she stepped into the small room where Sari Bari started, on the first day our doors opened. She was there to teach our first three heroes how to sew.

Gita has always done things her own way, by her own rules. She’s strong, stylish and willing to take on new challenges. Whatever hardship she endures, Gita takes it on.

It’s only a lady with these sorts of attributes who as a teenager could risk visiting the red light area to teach women how to sew, for a business that was only just starting.

At the beginning, I was very scared because I’d heard a lot about the red light area and I was afraid that something would happen,” she shares. But Gita persisted, determined to face her fears to help the women of Sari Bari.

I was doing vocational training, and from there, I was introduced to Sarah Lance [Sari Bari’s Co-founder]. I started as a trainer, teaching the women to sew. And then I gradually took on more responsibility – I became a Production Manager, then the Prevention Unit Manager, and now I’m the Human Resources Administrator. I’ve been doing this for about 6 months,” Gita says.

Every day, I pray to God, asking Him that if this job is for me, and if this title is for me, then please prepare me so that I can fulfil this job. If He thinks I’m good in this job, then He’ll grow in me in this process.”

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Gita is excited about being a leader, but says sometimes there are hard times and struggles she must deal with. “At those times I can be worried, but I carry on anyway. I make it through. At present, I need to be prepared all the time for whatever kind of challenge comes my way.”

Her favourite part about working at Sari Bari is supporting the women and being a champion in their lives. “I love listening to them and talking with them, and sharing life with each other. I love helping them with any needs, whatever way I can. If I am able to help them, then I’m very excited and very happy.”

Gita has made lasting relationships at Sari Bari – and found mentors that will forever change the course of her life. “Sarah has become like my second mother. She’s taught me from step to step. While I was growing, Sarah was always behind me, supporting me – she even did all the arrangements for my marriage! I’ll never be able to forget Sarah because she made me who I am.”

A mother of two beautiful girls, Gita has dreams to get a college education one day. And with her resilience, there’s nothing stopping her from reaching that dream!

“Sometimes I get in a situation where I feel like I have broken down and I don’t think it’s possible for me [to press on]. But I cheer myself up and say if everyone else can do it, then I can do it too.

Written by Nicole Peck

We witness a different sort of HIV story…

We witness a different sort of HIV story…

When we hear about HIV/AIDS, we very rarely hear good news stories. People become victims… they are labelled as just another statistic of the disease that spreads its destruction across nations.

But we here at Sari Bari witness a different sort of story.

We see women with the disease become empowered through the healing and treatment process. They aren’t powerless victims, they are courageous overcomers.

I’ve accompanied many women in their journey with HIV,” says Melissa, Sari Bari’s Director of Aftercare (outgoing). “For me personally, it’s overwhelming when someone has a positive diagnosis, to be the one who tells them. It often feels like a weight of responsibility – I know all the work it’s going to take to get her care, and I have a lot of fear about what lies ahead for her.”

But one of the things I love is then seeing the women become empowered as they secure their own treatment,” Melissa says.

There was one woman who was quite sick when we found out she was positive. The process of getting her engaged in the government treatment was very long and complicated. But it’s beautiful to see how different she is after receiving treatment. Her entire personality has shifted because she’s so much healthier. It’s amazing how that jump in her physical health has brought out this beautiful personality as she’s been able to come through some of that fear, and as she physically feels better. It’s been beautiful to see her bloom and transform.”

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Approximately 8% of the women at Sari Bari have received an HIV positive diagnosis. Most of the women do not know they are positive until joining Sari Bari – it’s usually detected during their first Well Woman Check Up.

If a woman is HIV positive, Sari Bari does two main things – we accompany her along the sometimes complicated path of treatment, and then we empower her to manage the treatment on her own. She becomes capable, rather than crippled by her diagnosis.

The Government of West Bengal provides free HIV treatment and testing. The women get tests (called a CD4 Count) done every 6 months to ensure their immunity levels remain at a healthy level. If their count falls below a certain level, they receive medication monthly.

It can be incredibly frustrating to engage treatment,” Melissa says. “So if a woman is positive, we’ll walk with her very closely in the first 6 months, helping her learn the system – taking her to appointments, completing all the paperwork, and getting her integrated into the system.” 

We also give the women vitamins every month, to help with their nutrition. And we have a way of compensating them for the time they miss at work to attend their doctors’ appointments. They also receive an additional amount every month to make sure they’re eating better.”

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According to Sari Bari’s 2014 Annual Survey, of the 104 women surveyed, 65% know what HIV is, and 60% can accurately describe how it is spread. “We try to educate the women about what HIV is and the truth behind the disease, because with education comes power, understanding and lack of fear. We fear what we don’t understand,” Melissa says.

There is a stigma against HIV/AIDS in this country. Some of that stems from lack of education and understanding of the disease and how it spreads. Awareness is improving, but there is still incredible fear and very often a lot of mistreatment of people who are positive.”

Melissa says when the women initially learn of their diagnosis, they often see themselves as a victim. “All of that is fear in not knowing, so we tell them that they can live a long and healthy life. They are not alone. There is medicine available. There are a lot of ways this disease can go, but there is still hope.”

We really value all the supporters who contribute financially, so we can provide an extra level of care to these women. For just $15, you can help us support a woman with HIV for one month. If you’re in a position to give, we’d love your support!

Written by Nicole Peck