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.”
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.”
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
When you walk into an average family home, you’ll often see photos on the wall. Celebrations, milestones, and family portraits… they’re up there, in all their glory, for everyone to see.
Sari Bari is no different – we’re a family and on our walls, there are hundreds of photos, proudly displaying our 117 heroes.
And if you took a closer look, you’d say one face staring back at you, more than the rest. That’s the face of Champa, one of the very first heroes of Sari Bari.
She’s a trailblazer… a pioneer and forerunner towards freedom. She took a big leap of faith almost 10 years ago, to join a business that hadn’t even started production yet. It was just a small rented room, and she was one of three women learning how to sew.
As I sit across from her, the first thing I notice about Champa is her smile. It’s one of the most radiant you’ll see. She laughs as she reminisces about the early years, her gentle wrinkles embedding a little deeper with every memory.
“When the new women come, I tell them they can do it; I encourage them. I tell them I’ve been able to do it, and so can they,” she says. Champa has a motherly, tender touch, which she uses to not only encourage the women who work in her unit, but also women who work the line. She’s the reason many women have found their way to Sari Bari’s bright red doors.
“I remember my first day,” Champa says. “The first day was very hard, but I committed to learning. I never missed a day of work – even if I had a fever, I would still come in. I will cherish the early days.”
When Champa arrived at Sari Bari she had no previous sewing experience, but that only made her more determined to learn. “It felt very good to sew my first blanket. I still have it, but it’s getting very old now. Whenever my husband goes out of town, I take out my blanket, lay it on the floor, and have my afternoon nap on it.”
As she thinks back to where Sari Bari started, Champa becomes passionate about the women still left to help. “It’s important for Sari Bari to keep growing – there are new women who need work. When I started, some women had been in the trade for 10 years, but now those women have been in the trade for 20 years and they might be ready to get out. We need to be there for those women.”
In her role, Champa is in charge of ironing and preparing all the material, straps and zippers so the ladies on the machines can do their work as efficiently as possible. “My favourite part about coming into work each day is getting everything ready for the women. I like to anticipate what they need before they even ask.”
Champa says it feels good when people call her a hero. “My manager was the first person to call me a hero, and it felt very good. The master tailor also calls me a hero because I get everything prepared. It feels good to be called a hero.”
Champa is one of our first heroes and we couldn’t imagine Sari Bari without her… we’ve even named a bag after her! She exudes a quiet strength and joy in everything she does. We love her.
You can help us lay a foundation so more heroes like Champa can be born! We have the chance to acquire a building and transform it into a new production unit for young women who are at risk of re-entering the trade.
Visit saribari.info to find out more information about an exciting opportunity to give more women a taste of freedom.
Written by Nicole Peck
Eight months pregnant and desperate to make a better life for her unborn child, Sundari* was on the hunt for a job that would keep her from joining the line.
Only a teenager, Sundari was knocking on the doors of freedom businesses, searching for any option, any hope, that would lead to a bright future for her daughter.
Sundari did find hope.
Fast forward almost 18 months, and Sundari, now 18 years old, has been working at Sari Bari for 5 months, and is in her final month of training.
When you walk through the red doors of our production unit, often the first thing you’ll see is a cute little face peering from behind one of the sewing rooms. That cute little face belongs to Sundari’s daughter, Suji*, who is exactly one year, two months and 10 days old.
“She dances a lot and claps her hands and gives a lot of joy to the room [while we all sew],” Sundari says. “She loves everyone here and has a lot of aunties, uncles and grandmothers at Sari Bari!”
“I wanted my daughter to have a better life than I did. I grew up in a hostel, but I want to be able to move out of [the red light area] with my daughter and raise her in a different neighborhood where I’ll be able to send her to school,” she says.
Sundari has dreams of sending Suji to an English speaking school. “However much work it takes me, I will do it so my daughter can have that kind of education. I want her to be able to study as long as she can. I want her to learn how to draw and how to dance.”
It’s taken a lot of determination for Sundari to push through challenges during her training. “When I first started training, I didn’t think I would be able to do it. My manager here at Sari Bari is my next-door neighbor, and when I saw her sewing at home, I thought I could do that too. But when I got here and started sewing, I thought I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make my lines straight,” Sundari says.
But with the help of her manager, Sundari learnt how to sew in straight lines and is now on her way towards graduation. “When I finished my first bag, I was filled with joy because I didn’t think I would be able to do it. And I couldn’t have done it without my manager’s help.”
Sundari says her favorite part about coming into work each day is sitting with the other women and telling stories. “I like that I get to come and do work while spending time with all of the other women. It makes my day pass quickly!”
India celebrated Children’s Day on November 14 – so today at Sari Bari, we’re celebrating children like Suji who have a bright future ahead because of the bravery of their mothers!
*Names have been changed
Written by Nicole Peck
Everything happens for a reason.
I couldn’t tell you why I decided to make the journey to India. My wife has always wanted to go, but me… not so much. Sure I enjoy the occasional curry, am pretty comfortable with a warm climate and hey, I even watch cricket. But go to India? I wasn’t convinced it was for me. Maybe it’s for those ‘hippie’ backpacker types, or the admirable men and women whom feel called to live with and serve the poor and needy.
But this year, when my wife and I set out on our ‘year of adventure’ across the globe, she snuck India onto our itinerary. And I was okay with that. In my mind, our time in India would be ‘her thing’ – her chapter of our 2015 travel story.
I guess I was wrong. It’s turned into a life-changing adventure for us both.
We’ve just finished a three-month stint in Kolkata volunteering at Sari Bari. We helped out with whatever was needed. Some days that looked like making tags, or helping the ladies pack the beautiful products they’ve made. Other days it looked like using our professional skills in the field of media and communications, writing and digital strategy. But every day contained beautiful new experiences, and every day made us smile for a different reason.
I love the time in the morning when the ladies meet together, singing songs and starting their day in contagious joy and freedom. I love the time in the middle of the day when all that can be heard is laughter, gossip and the scraping of metal plates on the smooth concrete floor as everyone meets for lunch. I love the time in the evening when we break for ridiculously sweet tea and biscuits, and the sun begins to set behind the old cinder block buildings of our neighborhood.
My wife and I have travelled a lot. From the Eiffel Tower to the Statue of Liberty, from cathedrals in Rome to the mosques of Istanbul. But never before have we lived anywhere foreign. We’ve toured, but never planted our roots and lived as a local… that is, until our time in India’s City of Joy. Have I missed home sometimes? Sure. But as the dawn breaks each morning in Kolkata, so too has the feeling of being at home here. I’ve felt like I belong within the Sari Bari family.
Our time in Kolkata has been amazing. A once-in-a-lifetime experience. Being here at Sari Bari has value, and we’ve see this everyday in the shining faces of the women working in their freedom. It’s been fulfilling, rewarding, challenging, character-building, sweat-inducing, soul-uplifting work. And I’d do it all again.
Everything happens for a reason, and I’m glad this experience has happened to me.
Written by Jonathan Peck
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