Uncommon Crusaders? 3 Boys are Rewriting the Sex Trafficking Story
Women at ToF are sewing their way to freedom. (Photo: iStock)
Women at ToF are sewing their way to freedom. (Photo: iStock)

Uncommon Crusaders? 3 Boys are Rewriting the Sex Trafficking Story

In movies, stories of sex trafficking generally show a bleak journey of a woman forced into a ruthless, physical trade from where she sometimes escapes – while mostly, she isn’t able to. But a reality check tells us that what actually happens is much, much worse.

This woman, after being mentally and sexually assaulted and then freed, has basically nowhere to go. Her family doesn’t want her. In fact, it is her relative who pushes her into the trade in most cases. Just like Shankara, who was only 19 when she was rescued from sex trafficking. She met with even more hostility when her family didn’t take her back; when she tried to make a living, potential employers shunned her.

A ToF factory where survivors of sex trafficking are braving their way to a livelihood. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)
A ToF factory where survivors of sex trafficking are braving their way to a livelihood. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)

It was at this point that Shankara found a breakthrough; an organisation counselled her, trained her and helped her find a job. Today, she makes t-shirts in a manufacturing unit in Bangalore and earns a small salary. She has regained her confidence and is steadily leaving the scars of the past behind. And – the good news is that Shankara is one of the 21 women rehabilitated by a unique enterprise run by three young men, called ‘Threads of Freedom’ (ToF).

This woman is one of the many grateful beneficiaires who are proudly earning a living at ToF. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)
This woman is one of the many grateful beneficiaires who are proudly earning a living at ToF. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)
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How Sunita Krishnan and Research Fuelled the Labour of Three US-Returned Boys

ToF is the fruit of love of twenty-somethings, Pritham Raja, Soumil Surana and Adarsh Nungoor, who, after stellar degrees in the US, returned to India to set up this organisation. They were galvanised after watching a powerful TED talk by activist Sunita Krishnan; later, they stumbled upon articles by Nicholas Kristoff and watched numerous documentaries detailing the plight of these women.

Adarsh Nungoor (L) and Pritham Raja, two of the founders of ToF. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)
Adarsh Nungoor (L) and Pritham Raja, two of the founders of ToF. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)

Research says that 98% of the estimated 4.5 million forced into sexual exploitation are girls and women. According to rough estimates, around 3000-4000 women, between the age of 18 and 35, are rescued across India (including non-Indian citizens like Nepalis, Bangladeshis) in a year. Sex trafficking is an exceptionally evil crime because not only is a fellow human being enslaved, he/she is also physically and sexually abused multiple times.
– Pritham Raja

To make things worse, once rescued, these women are not taken back by their families nor given employment. And that is where ToF comes in.

Sewing Freedom, One Thread at a Time...

To put it simply, ToF helps these women find jobs to earn a livelihood. To achieve this, it works with a number of agencies and organisations simultaneously – a manufacturer with multiple units, the department of women and child development, Karnataka, ministry of textiles, an NGO focused on primary rescue and reintegration and another NGO that takes care of women in distress.

A t-shirt made by the ToF organisation which provides jobs to thousands of sex trafficking survivors. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)
A t-shirt made by the ToF organisation which provides jobs to thousands of sex trafficking survivors. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)

“Large orders of clothes are placed by us with the partner manufacturing units. This acts as an incentive for them to employ our candidates (the rescued women). Once our orders are fulfilled, the revenue generated from selling these clothes (under our brand ‘tofu clothing’) to consumers and fashion brands funds our training, counselling and the mission as a whole,” explains 26-year-old Raja.

A woman hard at work, sewing the threads of her freedom. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)
A woman hard at work, sewing the threads of her freedom. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)

Accommodation and food for these women are organised by the NGOs they work with. “Both are free until they get their first pay cheque; after that, it is provided at a subsidised rate,” he says.

With ToF, the Proof of Victory is in a Single Ticket Stub

ToF has worked with 21 beneficiaries so far, in Karnataka. There are 10 beneficiaries in the programme currently; these candidates have collectively worked 72,960 man-hours, which translate to roughly 400,000 t-shirts! Recently, the trio has set up a dedicated office in Mumbai as well.

An infograph that charts the sex trafficking story. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)
An infograph that charts the sex trafficking story. (Photo Courtesy: Threads of Freedom)

At a time when most news related to women is negative, this organisation’s work for rescued trafficking victims sets a unique example. The venture which raised funds through a Kickstarter project in 2014 is brilliant and effective, because it gives the victim a second shot at living life normally. They are trained and employed in the units like anyone else – with their backgrounds being strictly confidential. As 26-year-old Neeta says,

I have learnt a life skill. With the money I am earning from making the t-shirts, I even go to the movies on weekends.

And in such a simple act, lies the proof of victory.

(Runa Mukherjee Parikh has written on women, culture, social issues, education and animals, with The Times of India, India Today and IBN Live. When not hounding for stories, she can be found petting dogs, watching sitcoms or travelling. A big believer in ‘animals come before humans’, she is currently struggling to make sense of her Bengali-Gujarati lifestyle in Ahmedabad.)

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