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Meet The Clothing Brand Empowering Women to Escape India’s Sex Trade

Anchal provides jobs in the textiles industry—and an alternative to prostitution.

Actress America Ferrera meets the artisan women of Anchal.

It's estimated that between 2 and 3 million Indian women are commercial sex workers. Born into poor families, girls as young as 12—many with mothers already in the sex industry—are initiated into this trade as a means of survival. They are often forced to drop out of school, and in essence, society. As a result of their lack of education, they can spend a lifetime at the mercy of clients, pimps, and in worst case scenarios, their own failing health. Economic need, familial coercion, and a lack of employment options in remote areas can often force women into this type of sexual slavery—creating a cycle that can feel unbreakable. While there are several India-based NGOs that seek to help these women, the numbers are overwhelming. Anchal, a Louisville, KY-based clothing line that provides textile careers to commercial sex workers (by partnering with groups like Anoothi/Vatsalya in Ajmer, Rajasthan and New Light in Kolkata, West Bengal), helps these women find alternative ways of creating capital and gaining new skills.

Anchal began in 2009 when RISD graduate student Colleen Clines attended a seminar exploring design in the developing world. This experience inspired her to travel to India, where she realized she could change lives through direct action. She decided to fuse her creative skills with social entrepreneurship, and Anchal was conceived. Since 2009, Clines has helped more than 100 women start careers in textile and design, facilitating training in everything from dyeing and sewing to graphics.

Indigo pillows from Anchal’s forthcoming collection.

Anchal’s first ready-to-wear collection, Living in Color (launching October 2015), is just the latest in a string of successful projects Clines has facilitated. Previously she spearheaded the Didi (meaning “sisterhood” in Hindi) Connection, a collaboration with actress America Ferrera that was a precursor to Living in Color. She has also received grants from Dining for Women, and a Google Global Impact Award—which allowed Anchal to triple in size. In 2014 Clines clocked in at number 18 on Public Interest Design’s Global 100, an illustrious list of entrepreneurs using “design and service for development purposes.”

The Living in Color collection is slightly different from Clines’ past work. Its fabric are made from vintage saris that have been dyed in teals, purples, pinks, blacks and greys by Anchal’s artisans. After, they are intricately quilted together with a traditional running stitch known as kantha. “Quilt-making is the medium through which we instigate, collaborate, and facilitate economic and personal transformation for the commercial sex workers involved in the project,” Clines explains. “When we were conceptualizing the new collection, we wanted the challenges our artisans overcome to be tangible. With continued use of vintage saris and the addition of overdyeing, we can honor another Indian textile tradition and explore new unique goods that give incredible impact these brave women.”

But Anchal and its associates do more than just give these women work. Anoothi, their first NGO partner, also contributes support and maintenance to a Children’s Village in Jaipur where many orphaned or abandoned children escape these same cycles of poverty and prostitution. Anoothi helps mothers by funding self-help groups, training, micro credit, and micro finance activities. The second group they work with, New Light—based in the Kalighat red light district of Kolkata, India—has organized a “creche-cum-night-shelter” to protect and educate young girls and women at especially high risk. This program has been in operation for six years and provides shelter, education, health care, and legal aid for all members of their community.

“Whatever I could not enjoy as a child, I ensure that my daughter gets. She will also get the best education possible,” says Meena, one of the women who works with Anchal. “I used to worry a lot as to how I will do it but now I have courage and money. I will work more and earn more money and make her a doctor.”

“I tried to leave the commercial sex trade more than three times. But I couldn’t because I had a financial crisis,” says Laxmi, another woman with the program. “And then I joined Anchal and was able to leave the trade the next year.”

“Like many artisans, Laxmi was extremely reserved upon joining,” says Clines.“You could sense the extreme adversities and pain she must have endured. However, three years later I can see a different person in front of me – a strong, empowered leader who fought oppression with design.”

There were numerous women willing to speak on the record regarding their experiences with Anchal, but all had the same message: making these garments has added something meaningful to their lives. And from a purely design standpoint, they can also be very proud of the work they’ve done. The gorgeously dyed quilts, pillows, and scarves contain the kind of craftsmanship and soul often missing from today’s computer-generated textiles.

“Anchal is providing critical impact in the lives of an extremely vulnerable population, women trapped in an endless cycle of abuse and exploitation,” Clines explained to GOOD. “Anchal's program not only gives women skills and jobs, it provides critical confidence through design and creation. Anchal artisans have transformed into creative and independent women who now run the household that once kept them in confinement.”

In keeping with their commitment to these women, Anchal is currently working on a scholarship to fund the education of children of commercial sex workers enrolled in their program. But for now: though you might just be buying a piece of clothing or an accessory, who knows—you also might be helping one of these children leave a life of poverty behind.

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