Perched On The Edge Of A Red Light District
THE STORY OF THE LOYAL
THE LOYAL WORKSHOP
I am liberated from the trade, so I want all women trapped in brothels to be liberated as well. I used to be afraid of people but now I am afraid of no one. All women should have the opportunity to do fine work, to live with dignity and respect, and be able to realize their own value.” – Balika
Sarah Beisly studied business at university but was never attracted by the thought of making money for herself. She was interested in how business could be used to empower and provide opportunities for those who are marginalized or poor. In 2002 Sarah and her husband Paul travelled to Kolkata, India to visit friends who had started businesses offering alternative employment to women trapped in the sex trade. Sarah shares, it was during that trip something inside her came alive. “I believed in what they were doing… it was why I had studied business in the first place.”
On that initial trip and subsequent others, Sarah’s eyes were opened to the conditions experienced by women in Kolkata’s sex trade. “There are currently so many women trapped in the sex trade and the vast majority of them have not chosen this profession – they are tricked, they are stolen. The stories of how women end up in the red light area are common enough. Girls grow up in a poor household with a lack of education and opportunities. Traffickers, whom the girls often know, go around the villages and offer work in the city. When the girls get to the city they are sold to a brothel and locked up in a disgusting room the size of a single bed. They are repeatedly raped, forced to see customer after customer after customer, and they’re told that having started this line of work they are bad women, no one else will take them now and that is their lot. Slowly, they start to believe this. The psychological abuse is so intense that it gets to a point where the doors are unlocked and the girls won’t leave because they are trapped in their minds.”
When Sarah saw all this going on in Bowbazar, a red light district in central Kolkata, she couldn’t believe it was happening in her lifetime. “I knew I would never be able to justify doing nothing about it to my grandchildren.”
“In 2014, we set up The Loyal Workshop, which is perched on the edge of the red light district and offers employment to women who have been trapped in the sex trade. When we started, we did brothel visitations to build up a rapport and trust with the women because we wanted to show ourselves to be friends who wouldn’t betray them. Building this trust takes time. We speak a lot about what it would look like for them to fight for their freedom. We let them know that when they’re ready to leave we’re here to offer them work in a for-profit business, where the products speak for themselves and aren’t contextualized by the stories of our artisans – there is a lot of pride and dignity in that.”
Eight years on, The Loyal Workshop now employs 16 incredibly courageous women as leather artisans. All the products are made from eco-tanned leather and hand-stitched by the women at the workshop. More than just providing dignified employment, The Loyal Workshop offers social support in the form of informal counseling, group therapy, justice advocacy, debt reconsolidation, spiritual formation, budgeting support, addiction support, and regular health check-ups.
Many of the women at Loyal now truly believe their own value and they dream of the same for other women. One of Loyal’s artisans, Balika, states, “I am liberated from the trade, so I want all women trapped in the brothels to be liberated as well. I used to be afraid of people but now I am afraid of no one. All women should have the opportunity to do fine work, to live with dignity and respect, and be able to realize their own value.”
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