He’s 25 years old, loves Hollywood action movies, and says his sewing skills are quite ordinary.
He’s one of the most sincere and loyal people – a man of his word, who will do everything in his power to follow through on what he says.
This is Sandeep… Sari Bari’s Production Logistics Coordinator.
When sharing his favourite part about working at Sari Bari, Sandeep’s face lights up. “I love seeing the ladies smile when they get their salaries. When I see them happy, that makes me feel happy, more than anything else,” he says.
Sandeep joined the Sari Bari family in June 2013. He’s responsible for receiving orders from customers, ensuring orders are ready by the shipment date, solving problems and answering any questions. “The most challenging part is getting a shipment delivered on time because there are many things that are out of my control. But I give it my best to do everything I can to make sure it does,” he says.
Sandeep completed a marketing degree in college, but he knew very little about production and logistics before joining Sari Bari. “I had some experience working in an office, but this was my first permanent job.” But Sandeep was determined to learn all the ins-and-outs of the job as quickly as possible.
“One thing we learn at Sari Bari is whether you are senior staff or junior staff, we do everything from cleaning the bathroom to sitting in front of the computer. We do everything – whatever comes to us. We never say no to anything,” he says.
Sandeep was born in Mumbai, but has lived in Kolkata for 8 years. “Life here is very fast-paced; faster than other cities. It’s very crowded. People over here are very ethnic and very diverse.”
When Sandeep isn’t at work, you’d find him at the cinema, waiting for the next action flick to arrive in Kolkata (which doesn’t happen very often!). “I love Hollywood action and thriller movies. It’s my favourite time when I get to watch them!”
Written by Nicole Peck
Jaya* is one of the most determined people you’ll ever meet. Whatever she sets her sights on, she achieves.
She’s a production manager, home owner, outstanding leader and is already planning ahead to her future retirement.
If she isn’t the definition of ‘empowerment’, then we don’t know who is!
Jaya is like many women here in Kolkata… she has many dreams for her life and for the lives of her children. But the difference is she has the support to see those dreams come true.
“I had saved some money on my own, and I hoped that I would be able to buy some land and build my own house. But I couldn’t do it,” Jaya says.
So in 2008, after working at Sari Bari for a little while, Jaya used her savings and took out an interest-free loan from Sari Bari, which meant she could purchase land.
“I could have gotten a loan from someone else, but I would have had to give them double the amount that I had taken out as a loan in the first place,” she says.
After paying off her loan in full, Jaya started saving money again, this time so she could build a house on her land.
“But as I began to think about the costs of building my own house, I realized it would cost me around 100,000 rupees. And I didn’t have that much money,” she shares. So again, Jaya combined her savings with another interest-free loan from Sari Bari, to make her house-owning dream a reality.
Jaya is now living out that dream.
She currently lives in her very own one-bedroom house, complete with it’s own pond and a newly-planted vegetable patch.
When she first moved into her house, which is located in a village near our Sari Bari prevention unit, Jaya didn’t have electricity. But she was determined to move in anyway. “My house isn’t finished yet, but I decided I would rather make it livable and move in, rather than keep paying 1,000 rupees a month in rent,” she says.
Every month, Jaya continues to set money aside to fix her house. She’s already made improvements, like building her own well so she doesn’t have to travel to get her water anymore. Her next goal is to build her own water pump.
Jaya has also laid the foundation to build a second room in the future. “I don’t have a formal kitchen right now – I’ve made a makeshift kitchen on the dirt using a tarp. But when I build my second room, then I’ll make myself a proper kitchen.”
Jaya loves living in her own home and the freedom it brings. “Before, when I lived in rented rooms, there was the uncertainty of how long I could stay, but not anymore,” she says.
“Having my own house gives me stability and security in my future. I have a son and a daughter, but you don’t know what will happen to them in the future. Having my own house gives me security that I’ll have a place to live and that I’ll be provided for.”
Jaya says she’s worked in many different places, but has loved working at Sari Bari that most. “There have been so many benefits in working here – if I had worked at another place, who knows… I probably wouldn’t have been able to take a loan like that [to build my own house].”
After completing training, Sari Bari works with each woman, depending on need, to pay her debts. Sari Bari is often able to negotiate a lower total payoff with the money lenders (this applies to personal debts only—we do not buy women out of the sex trade). The individual then pays Sari Bari back at no interest with a monthly payment that fits within their budget.
Sari Bari also has a home loan program, which requires the women to save half upfront and Sari Bari will match the amount with a loan, which can be repaid at the same rate as the savings occurred.
*Name has been changed.
Written by Nicole Peck
It’s an image I’ll never be able to get out of my head.
As we walked down Sonagachi Lane, I looked behind us, and saw a trail of yellow flowers marking where our feet had just trod. The scene behind me was no longer one of darkness… there were bulbs of brightness in the hands of each woman.
Last night, we celebrated our annual Flower Day. For the last 10 years, a team of senior leaders from Sari Bari have ventured out at night, handing out thousands of yellow flowers to the women working in the red light area right outside our doorstep.
I’m an intern here, and was invited to come along for the night. And it’s an experience I will never forget.
I’ll always remember those first initial steps I took into the red light area, which is a myriad of narrow alleys and lanes that house hundreds of brothels. The moment I set foot into one of those narrow lanes, it was like entering a whole new world. It’s hard to explain, other than it was like my vision turned to grey-scale – the alley I was entering into was dark, dirty and lined with over 20 women waiting for customers.
But then, the atmosphere shifted. Color, life and hope began to bubble up. As we started to hand out flowers to each woman, the scene before me shifted from greyscale, to color.
The women’s faces broke into smiles as they accepted their yellow bundle. They were happy and taken aback as they were told, “A beautiful flower for a beautiful lady”. And even if only for a moment, they were reminded of their worth and beauty amidst the place they’ve been forced to call home.
It was at this moment that I turned my head back and saw the effects of our trail of yellow. The ladies were showing one another their flowers and placing them behind their ears. It was like life had been injected back into the street. What an amazing thing to witness.
At one point, a young teenage girl grabbed me by the arm, and just stared into my eyes. I didn’t need to understand Bengali to see gratitude and thanks.
We ended our flower adventures back at the Sari Bari units, where we delivered the last of the flowers to our very own beauties. It was special to watch joy spread around the unit as the women handed out flowers to each other. They made flower bouquets, tied together with sari scraps, and spent the last hour of work adorned with yellow flowers in their hair.
Flower Day was an unforgettable evening. We gave out 3,500 flowers – that’s 3,500 seeds of hope planted in our neighborhood. It’s all worth it if the women experience just a small moment of hope before reality sets back in. Even just for a moment, these women knew they are cared for and are precious. What a night.
Written by Nicole Peck
The streets are quiet. The soft morning sunlight streams through the constant haze. Tea is brewing and lines of customers are only just beginning to form.
It’s only when Kolkata is still in its rare slumber state that the Old Girish Park Sari Market is open for trading. This is where Sari Bari sources its pre-loved saris that make our one-of-a-kind products.
The market stretches for a kilometre down the side of a busy road. And it’s not just saris for sale. Many vendors sell second-hand items like t-shirts, jeans, jackets, bed sheets, baby clothes and curtains. The market provides self-employment for people who otherwise couldn’t find work.
In Kolkata, the sellers collect saris from homes in exchange for household items, like new plastic buckets, bags or steel plates. They go from house to house, from 10am to 5pm daily, in search of their prized saris.
Sari Bari has a sari vendor who collects saris from the market for us – we’ve used him for the last three years, so he knows the quality and colors we need to make our products.
Once the saris find their way to Sari Bari, they get sorted by color and are selected for products. When we match saris for a blanket, we look for coordinating patterns. We generally put geometrics with geometrics, and florals with florals. But some of the best matches break the rules of matching – they go together, but they shouldn’t!
For years, Sarah our product designer has been doing all the matching, but in the last year, the women themselves have taken on this responsibility.
We primarily get red and green saris, which is why you see those colors mostly on the website. The remaining saris are blues, pinks and purples, which everyone wants! We very rarely select orange or yellow saris because of customer preference for other colors.
We purchase two different qualities of saris – ‘inner saris’ and ‘outer saris’. The outer saris, which are in the best condition, form the visible parts of blankets and bags. They are the most important part! The inner saris, which usually have a bit of wear and tear, are used to form the ‘inside’ layers of our products necessary to create our layered Kantha design, but are not visible.
After being matched, the saris go to cutting. The ladies in cutting are the final quality control check in deciding whether it’s a good sari or a bad sari.
Then the ladies work their magic to transform the saris into beautiful product creations!
Photography and writing by Nicole Peck
This is Upendra.
Barely grazing 5 feet, he’s the man that holds the seams of Sari Bari together. He’s a pioneer of prevention. Servant leader. Sewing teacher. A faith-filled brother to all of us at Sari Bari.
Upendra has been around since our inception. Back in 2006, when Sari Bari opened its doors with just three women in a small room, he was there patiently teaching everyone to sew. “Looking back, I can see that our first day was an amazing day. It was the start of a journey for Sari Bari and the journey for my life,” he says.
Only a few years earlier, Upendra achieved the incredible… in just one night.
“After my wife and I got married, we met a couple who worked with women and poor people [by giving them opportunities to sew products]. One day, they got a big blanket order – in one month, they had to finish 200 blankets. They asked if I knew how to sew blankets, and I didn’t know. But my wife knew! We asked them to give us a blanket sample to copy. So we came home and my wife taught me how to sew,” Upendra shares.
“We only had a small room, so I sat on one side of the bed, and my wife on the other. We would take turns sewing in different directions. In just one night, we finished the blanket. They were so surprised when we arrived the next day. After that, we got 10 blankets to sew.”
And that’s how Upendra became a sewing master.
Upendra is Sari Bari’s Director of Operations, which means he oversees lots of areas: finance, admin, building matters, outsourcing and liaising with vendors. Before working at Sari Bari, he trained women how to sew blankets and bags at different NGOs, so he also brings teaching expertise to his job.
“I’ve been here since the beginning. I know how we do things here, so when there is any problem, many people ask me for the solution,” he says.
The women at Sari Bari call Upendra ‘dādā’, which means ‘older brother’. “I’m like a brother to the women here – I am so happy when they call me that. Not boss, not leader, not manager. I feel very happy when they call me brother. In Bengali culture, it’s a sign of respect.”
Upendra is Sari Bari’s prevention pioneer. In 2010, Sari Bari opened a prevention unit after seeing the need for employment for women vulnerable to trafficking, in a village outside of Kolkata.
“A lot of the women [working in the city red light areas] come from these village areas. In my mind, I wondered why we weren’t going out there to stop trafficking. So the Sari Bari team did some research in the villages [to see if it was possible],” Upendra says.
For one month, the team surveyed a particular high-trafficking area, and that’s where Sari Bari’s prevention unit is located. “We started with one room on the ground floor, but we keep growing upwards.”
Upendra has a real heart for prevention. “One night, I had a dream where many girls were crying out to me saying, ‘please help us, please help us.’ They were in a dark place and a river was nearby. After that, I decided to commit to pursing a way to give more opportunity to women in the village areas,” he says.
Upendra juggles a very busy life. As well as overseeing Sari Bari’s operations, this father-of-two is also studying an Organisational Leadership degree. “I started studying this year. I have committed to giving 2 hours each night after work, but at the moment, it’s very hard for me. Sometimes I feel like I should just give up, but then I ask God for help,” he says.
Written by Nicole Peck
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Download the 2015 Fall Look Book here.
It has been an exciting season of growth at Sari Bari – we’re reaching significant milestones, we’re seeing more women find new life, we’re raising funds for the opening of a new unit. Thank you so much for your support as we continue to grow!
Celebrating Hope Made Tangible
In August, Sari Bari celebrated two significant milestones! Box Lane Unit 1 marked its 6 year anniversary, and Box Lane Unit 2 reached its first birthday. Both of these units operate in the heart of Kolkata’s largest red-light area, offering freedom and restoration, and standing firm as beacons of light and hope. Currently 46 women are employed and 6 women are in training at the two units, and these women truly embody resilience, beauty, and strength as they choose freedom every day and build brighter futures for themselves and their families.
Supriya, a manager at Box Lane Unit 2, has big dreams for the unit, “I want every space here to be filled. So many girls are suffering so much [in the red-light area], and I want to bring them here so that they can be free.”
Gita, one of Sari Bari’s directors, reflects on the 6 year anniversary at Box Lane Unit 1, “I’m so thankful that we reached 6 years here. Many women have found freedom and have been able to stand on their own feet. They have found confidence and pride in themselves and what they’ve accomplished. I have many dreams for the future of Sari Bari.”
Program Update: Training & Graduation
The current training cohort is 4 months in, and the women are growing, learning, and being beautifully woven into the Sari Bari community. The six trainees are receiving sewing training from our managers, participating in literacy and numeracy training, and engaging in mental health groups with our aftercare staff. Some of the trainees have been doing so well with sewing training that they received production bonuses last month! Shani*, pictured below left as she practices Bengali numbers, says she is happy that her sewing is improving, and she is enjoying learning to write.
We wish a heart-felt “Obhinondon!” (Congratulations) to five women who successfully completed training at the Sari Bari Trafficking Prevention Unit in Canning! The manager and trainers did an amazing job of supporting this training group, and the trainees (now graduates!) have joined the ranks of the professional artisans at Sari Bari. The Prevention Unit manager shares, “Graduation means new life. It means full time employment and freedom.” Read more here about training and the Trafficking Prevention Unit…
Sari Bari would like to send a special thank you to our training program sponsors. With your support, Sari Bari trainees are able to take the first steps of their freedom journeys and make their way to graduation and full-time employment. You have been an integral part of making training and graduation possible! THANK YOU!
#HeroesCampaign: Double Your Impact
We are into the second month of the Heroes Campaign. Through generous supporters of Sari Bari, $25,000 has been made available for matching through September. That means that every dollar you give for the prevention of re-trafficking through employment and social support will be doubled! Read more here about the Sari Bari #heroescampaign…
Behind the Seams: Meet Aduri
Freedom birthday: December 2009
Role at Sari Bari: Quality Control Manager, Box Lane Unit
“I make sure quality products get sent to our customers. I want them to love our products. We can do beautiful work here – making beautiful products and finding freedom. I’m so grateful that so many women can work at Sari Bari, that they can do good work, and that they can make beautiful products. We have grown so much. I hope many more women can work here.”
Written by Sera Han
*Name changed to protect identity.
These numbers are markers; reasons to celebrate. Each one represents a life changed and a new start that’s been given.
But numbers only tell part of the story. Behind the numbers there is life bubbling up within the walls of Sari Bari – it spills out of the buildings and into the streets of Kolkata.
I’ve been an intern here for over a month, and ever since I’ve arrived, my senses have been awakened to life echoing within Sari Bari. As I write this, I’m sitting on the concrete floor, beside an amazing woman who’s stitching and another who’s trimming loose threads from a bag.
I’m surrounded by a whirlwind of activity and inspirational women working in freedom together. If you were beside me right now…
Women sitting on the floor or behind a sewing machine, working away.
Splashes of color everywhere, with vibrant saris laid out, ready to be cut.
Shoes, of all sizes and colors, lined at the building’s entrance.
Laughter and lively conversation between the women as they go about their work.
Sewing machines stopping and starting as ladies align the material.
The neighborhood rooster crowing throughout the day.
Washing machines and dryers churning as they constantly clean the saris.
Plastic rustling as products are packaged and ready to be shipped.
The afternoon sunlight piercing your skin as it streams into the building.
The humidity hugging to your skin as the rain clouds collect moisture.
The passionate embrace of a lady who’s been given a second chance.
Delicious curries wafting through the building as ladies congregate for lunch.
Exotic aromas from the streets below, drifting through the windows.
The rain as it finally cools down the air that’s been expectantly awaiting its arrival.
Delicious sweet tea and biscuits that are shared at 11am and 5pm each day.
Fresh drinking water from the buildings’ water filters.
Yummy cake that’s shared at celebrations marking women’s Freedom Birthdays.
There’s so much to experience inside Sari Bari’s four buildings, with their signature white walls and red doors. I’ve never stepped into a workplace like this before… it feels like a peaceful (and yet bustling) haven from the chaotic streets.
With every sense, you can feel the resilience of the women. It’s taken an incredible step of courage for each one to choose a Sari Bari life, and it’s their courage that travels with them as they step out of work and venture home each night to their families.
Written by Nicole Peck
The train ride to our prevention unit in a rural village is an interesting journey. We’re crammed into the carriage so tightly that passengers are hanging outside of the train.
The mixture of sweat, dirt and exotic smells mesh together to create an ambience only India can provide.
But the journey is definitely worth the discomfort. Joy waits at our destination. We’re on our way to celebrate the graduation of five girls who have been training for the last six months.
Looking out the window, the view quickly changes from the dense urban cityscape, to rural farm life. There are rice paddies and green fields flooded from the monsoonal months. Houses change from high-rise apartments to tin and tarp shacks. Paved roads become dirt tracks, where cows and goats roam in search of food.
As the doors to the prevention unit open, a joyful atmosphere engulfs us. There’s a sense of anticipation in the air as the women wait for the graduation ceremony to begin.
Chaya, the prevention unit’s production manager, says it’s a very significant day. “Graduation means new life. It means full time employment and freedom,” she says. “Freedom graduations and freedom birthdays are a celebration of what the women have come through.”
The unit is based on the outskirts of a region known as a hot spot for human trafficking. Sari Bari created the unit to offer high-risk girls an opportunity to receive life-giving education and work that will protect them from ever entering the sex trade. Currently, 35 women are employed at the unit.
“We’re here because there are so many young girls who are vulnerable to being sent to the city and they’re likely to enter bad work,” Chaya says. “Instead of them entering bad work, they can work for us. Our job is to keep them from ever needing to go into bad work.”
Chaya has been part of the Sari Bari family for more than 8 years. While living in the city, Chaya decided she no longer wanted to do the work she was doing. She quit on her own for 3 months, but struggled to find any other work. One day, a lady from Sari Bari told her about the work they were doing. Chaya did not have a lot of experience sewing, but said she was willing to learn. She signed up when Sari Bari was accepting new women for training.
Chaya started out sewing, but soon became a trainer, progressed to become an assistant manager, and is now the full production manager at the prevention unit.
Chaya says she never dreamt of becoming a manager. “The idea was never even in my head – I just thought I could come and sew. But the management team must have seen something in me because they asked me to take on more responsibility.”
A big part of Chaya’s job is ensuring the women work well together and that the work environment is peaceful. “When the women make a mistake, it’s my job to make them understand, in a gentle and kind way, what the mistake is, how to fix it, and how not to make the same mistake again,” she says.
Chaya says her favorite part about her job is helping the women understand the value of their work and their own value. “I want them to succeed because I don’t want to see them go to the city or to choose a different line [of work]. I know that by providing work here for them and helping them succeed, I’m preventing them from experiencing what I went through.”
These five young women are freedom graduates and are now set on a path of self-empowerment. The risk of them moving to the city to choose a different line of work is much lower.
Click here to find out how you can support a girl through training, so she can start a life of fulltime freedom.
Written by Nicole Peck
“My biggest dream for my children is that their lives will not be the way my life was. I want them to be able to stand on their own two feet and provide for themselves,” Nabah* says.
If you ever want to hear about the lengths a parent would go for their children, come meet Nabah. She has three children – a 12-year-old daughter and two sons aged 15 and 17.
Her eyes become tear-filled as she shares her story… a story of working hard so her kids can have every opportunity she never had.
“I’m not educated myself and I know that nowadays it’s really important to have an education. I want my kids to have the best education so they can have a good future ahead of them,” she says.
For most of the mothers at Sari Bari, their children’s education is a big priority. Yet many, if not all, of these mothers face many challenges in sending their kids to school. Some women cannot afford the school fees (even state schools are not free in India). As working and sometimes single mothers, they struggle to hold their children accountable to their studies, and their children drop out due to lack of accountability and interest. Additionally, financial pressure and worries about their children’s future means they may choose to marry off their daughter at a young age, which often means the end of education for daughters.
The challenges around education don’t just affect the women at Sari Bari… it’s a global issue impacting millions.
According to UNESCO(1), 781 million adults in the world – nearly two thirds of them women – are illiterate. Tragically, 250 million children of primary school age are not reaching minimum learning standards in reading and mathematics. That means they don’t know the basics.
Thankfully, literacy rates in Kolkata are slowly improving. The 2011 census(2) found male literacy has increased from 83.79% (2001) to 88.34% (2011), and female literacy has increased from 77.3% (2001) to 84.06% (2011). While the improvements are encouraging, we believe there is room for improvement.
We aren’t content with Kolkata’s children being part of these statistics – and that’s why we provide financial assistance to women, like Nabah, who want to send their children to school.
Through our School Benefit Program, women deduct a portion of their salaries each month to cover education costs. The women cover 24% of their child’s annual education expenses, and Sari Bari contributes the remaining 76% of the annual expenses. The cost of schooling includes: admission fees, boarding fees, tuition, textbooks, school supplies, uniforms, shoes, schoolbags and umbrellas.
Currently, 61 children are enrolled in school through our program, including Nabah’s youngest two children. They are studying at a boarding school.
Nabah says sometimes she worries because the boarding school can be strict, and if her children don’t do well on their exams, they won’t be able to keep going to the school. “But they just got exam results back and they did really well. I’m very proud of them,” she says.
“One day I told my daughter I had a dream that she would become a dancer and a teacher. And my daughter told me, ‘I’ll make your dreams come true’”.
Nabah’s 15-year-old son wants to do be in the field of business or office work when he gets older.
“He says he’s going to do that type of job so then I won’t have to work because he’ll be able to provide for me,” Nabah says.
Did you know that you can support the School Benefit Program? Just $60 will help send one child to school for a year. The sponsorship covers costs for: admission fees, boarding fees, tuition, textbooks, school supplies, uniforms, shoes, schoolbags and umbrellas.
Become a sponsor today!
Written by Nicole Peck
*Name has been changed.
1 UNESCO’s 2000-2015 ‘Education for All’ report: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002322/232205e.pdf