A New Path for Victims of Sex Trafficking
What if there were a market-based solution that could bring girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking back into society and independent living? What if that solution already exists?
Typically when a girl is rescued, often from a raid on a brothel by police, she’s brought to a place where she’ll be safe. Protected. She’s free. In theory.
In practice, the stigma against former sex workers is so great that it can be extremely difficult for them to reintegrate into society. If potential employers know about her past as a “prostitute,” they may not want to hire her. Her colleagues may shun her, after her family has already disowned her. Many girls and women feel trapped despite escaping the brothels. That, plus dealing with the aftermath of the physical, emotional, and mental trauma they have just been through makes independent living and societal integration even more daunting. But not impossible.
When Pritham Raja realized the myriad obstacles victims of sex trafficking face trying to live a normal life again, he knew he must act. He co-founded Threads of Freedom, a social enterprise that helps women reclaim their sense of agency through meaningful employment and social support.
Human trafficking is a global problem affecting millions of people. While it’s difficult to provide exact numbers for the sex trade in particular, some estimates put that number at upwards of 27 million. The UN, the US Department of State, and India’s Human Rights Commission all identify India as a major hub of the international sex trade. Numerous organizations are working to get these trafficking victims, mostly women, out of this modern day slavery.
Threads of Freedom teams up with these organizations and other nonprofits, government agencies, and garment manufacturers to provide employment and support for these women to help them get back on their feet. The women get housing, counseling, and training to work in reputable garment factories where their identity will remain protected. That’s the social part. The enterprise part is a clothing brand, ToFu (Threads of Freedom and U), that lets customers make a fashionable statement. The proceeds go back to support the social portion of the enterprise.
Since its founding in 2014, Threads of Freedom has worked with about 40 young women. That means the dignity of salaried jobs for 40 women who were previously slaves. Raja says that the second day of work at the garment factories is when the changes become visible in the women. When they get their first paycheck their confidence surges. Newly learned phrases like ‘self-reliance’ and ‘job security’ begin to flavor their speech. So far about 60 percent have successfully reintegrated into society, moving into housing they pay for themselves, making friends, and living independently. Some have even gotten married.
The nature of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in India, is one that relies heavily on networks. While all three co-founders are Indian, and have always had a passion for Indian social causes, Raja and Adarsh Nungoor both grew up in the Middle East. Raja, Nungoor, and Soumil Surana all studied engineering in the US. They always knew they wanted to go back to India. But when they landed in Mumbai, they didn’t know many people. The first six months were tough. No organization wanted to work with the Threads of Freedom team because the organizations didn’t know the co-founders. They didn’t trust the new guys. Yet building trust has been essential not only for finding partners to make their programs work, but also for raising capital.
Threads of Freedom started with a Kickstarter campaign. It is now also an UnLtd India investee, which has been a great help to the team and the work they’re doing. Organizations like UnLtd India are essential in entrepreneurial ecosystems because they engage before most other investors and entrepreneurial support organizations will step in.
One thing that makes social entrepreneurship so tough (but also so promising), is that the entrepreneurs are essentially running two businesses. The social part of the business requires getting social workers on board, working with NGOs like the International Justice Mission who rescue girls out of slavery, and training the girls in the basic work and life skills they need to succeed.
On top of that, they have a clothing company to run. Raja and Surana knew nothing about the fashion or clothing industry before starting, so in addition to providing essential services and training for the women, they’ve had to break into an entirely new industry. They have to worry about sales, marketing, branding, operations, HR, and every little detail that entrepreneurs face when starting a business.
Despite these challenges, Raja and Surana have big plans. Threads of Freedom is currently working to expand to other cities in India, with plans to work in other parts of the region as well. When asked about his ultimate vision for Threads of Freedom, Raja said, “to build a fundamental business model that’s replicable.” He wants to build up the processes of exchange credits with factories so that people in any part of the world can replicate the model. After all, human trafficking is a global problem, and Raja thinks he may have a solution that could work globally.