How Two Americans are Empowering Women in India to Leave the Sex Trade and Become Designers

Anchal [on-chal] – noun

  1. the edge of a sari used to provide comfort and protection to loved ones
  2. Shelter

In 2012, the International Labor Organization ILO reported that almost 21 million people are victims of forced labor. Of those 20.9 million, 4.5 million people are victims of forced sexual exploitation. Of those 4.5 million, 98 % are female, with 1 in 5 being a child under the age of 17. (ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour, Results and Methodology)

The Anchal Project is a non-profit social enterprise that addresses the exploitation of women around the world. To date, Anchal has provided alternative careers in textiles and design to over 150 former commercial sex workers in India.

Founded in 2009 by Collen Clines, Anchal offers women – and, by extension, their children – a way out of the vicious cycle by offering skills and design trainings, a community, and alternative sustainable employment opportunities.

Colleen and Maggie Clines Anchal Project - 1I met Colleen (Founder and CEO, on the right) and her sister Maggie (Creative Director) at the summer NY Now show in New York. Both have a background in design, and it was one of Colleen’s seminar classes at the Rhode Island School of Design that sparked the idea for the Anchal Project:

“It started while I was in graduate school and doing a seminar class, “Design for Development” at RISD. We travelled to India charged with a really basic project statement of working with the community to come up with innovative solutions from a designer’s perspective. We met with local NGOs and they expressed this void in their work with commercial sex workers, saying that while they provided outreach to children, they didn’t have any economic-generating alternatives for the women. We came back to the United States and raised $400 selling notecards and notebooks at an art sale, and that was the start of the project in 2010. Maggie joined us right after school and has been part of the project ever since.”

We came back to the United States and raised $400 selling notecards and notebooks at an art sale, and that was the start of the project in 2010.

Tell us a little more about the women you’re working with.

“We have trained 150 women so far, and they all come from extremely oppressive and exploited backgrounds. They were forced into the commercial sex trade by lack of alternatives or they were trafficked. They were looking for alternatives and a lot of them have been with us since the beginning. The impact on their standard of life has been very impressive. They are buying their own homes for the first time; they have their own bank account for the first time; they are sending their kids to private schools. They can afford even simple pleasures like a piece of fruit for their children.

Anchal Project 2014 from Anchal Project on Vimeo.

They have been able to set a huge example for their children, which has been really monumental. They are breaking the cycle. Their children see their mom as an artist who sells her wares around the world. There is no longer a stigma that used to be attached. They are moving to new neighborhoods where they are not known for their past experiences.

We focus a lot on sustainability and long-term vision. For us, it’s about the children and long-term change in these communities. For example, 100% of our women artisans have committed to keeping their daughters out of the sex trade. The impact is really amazing for these women and it’s spreading around the community.”

100% of our women artisans have committed to keeping their daughters out of the sex trade.

There are still a few challenges to overcome:

“One of the challenges we encounter as a small non-profit is getting our name out there, getting recognized, and sharing our story. As we continue to expand more women want to get involved and it depends on the resources we have at hand how many women we can bring in from the waitlist. As we sell more products and continue to expand our market, we will be able to bring in more women and have greater impact.

As for the women themselves, within the first year it is difficult for them to gain traction and receive permission to work with us. Many of them have become the primary breadwinner and with that, more acceptance has come from the husbands. It helps that they have a separate bank account for the business. Other challenges are that the women are still expected to do all the housework. They have very long days it is shocking to me that they are able to do the work and still take care of their families.”

Who are your local partners?

America Anchal Scarf B“Our artisans live in Ajmer in the state of Rajasthan in India. We work with Vatsalya, a local NGO in India; they handle the day-to-day management.

Our first partner was New Light, one of the NGOs that was covered in Half the Sky, [best-selling book written by husband-and-wife-team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in 2009]. During the filming of their documentary, they interviewed our partner Urmi Basu. There is also a video with America Ferrera sitting with our artists. We ended up doing a collaboration with America because she fell in love with our products, and that was our first collection of scarves that we launched in 2013.”

What can you tell us about Anchal products?

“They have evolved over the past few years. We started with traditional sari material using vintage pieces and quilting those together. Over the past few years we expanded and we over-dyed the sari material so you have more consistent color. We are using dyes like Indigo and colors like fuchsia and teal. Our newest collection that is coming out in October is using new material and it’s all one hundred percent organic cotton. We custom-dye these pieces and it’s a variety of Home Goods and accessories.”

Colleen and Maggie Clines Anchal Project_booth - 1 NC_09_04

“The goal Maggie and I have always had is that we want to arm the artisans with design skills as well. We are not just feeding them products and expecting them to fabricate hundreds of items. We want them to be able to make conscious decisions of which colors look good together, and which kind of patterns make sense, and really work to teach design skills. This is something they can take with them beyond Anchal, and we have seen people open up dress shops beyond what we do and other products, so that’s cool.”

What’s next for Anchal?

“We are getting ready to launch a program in Kentucky. The goal is always to become international. Our first project stateside is called DyeScape. We are training women who have been trafficked into sex trade here to dye with plants and flowers. We are using urban gardens in Louisville, Kentucky, and that’s a pilot phase. And of course our new line The Narrative Collection is launching online on October 20th.”




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