The clothing we buy in the United States today may be cheap. But is it ethical? Was it made by exploitive companies? One Louisville nonprofit is offering a better way to buy clothing and home goods that help bring women out of exploitation and into financial independence.
The Anchal Project was created by Louisvillian Colleen Clines, 31, and some friends, while she was a graduate student in landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. She took a design for development class, which then took a group trip to India.
“I had no intention of starting an organization,” Colleen says. “I was on a trajectory to work at an architecture design firm. In India, I was able to meet a local organization that was working with sex workers and children of sex workers. There was a void in their program, jobs, which we discussed. We kind of took the next steps to continue the conversation after returning to Rhode Island. Being young and 24, we just kind of said, ‘We’ll start an organization!’”
That organization now trains female artisans in India and Louisville and then sells their goods online. The women, who before had little opportunity to support themselves, now control their own money and are able to provide for their families in ways they never dreamed before.
Anchal started small, selling notebooks and notecards, raising $400 to purchase a sewing machine, instruction materials and a stipend for the artisans. From there, the organization began to expand. Now it makes products from vintage saris and organic cotton and sells them on its website and in some retail stores.
The women who work for Anchal were born into extreme poverty and didn’t have much opportunity in life. Many were forced to marry at a young age.
Nazia, for example, was married at 14, and her husband abandoned her at 18. She had a young son and a sick mother to care for, so she turned to prostitution just to feed her family. Recently, her son was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and she still struggles to pay his medical expenses. But without her job with Anchal, she would not be able to get him treatment at all.
Nazia has been working for Anchal for more than five years and is now a project assistant. Her son gets an education and has a private tutor, things she wouldn’t be able to provide without Anchal.
“We work really hard to make stuff that people like,” Nazia says. “When people buy our products, it means that we can clothe, feed and educate our children.”
The United Nations estimates there are 40 million commercial sex workers worldwide and 10 million of them are in India. Commercial sex workers in India are stigmatized and marginalized from society. They are forced into the commercial sex trade because of poverty, lack of education, limited skills and extreme gender inequality. The women become trapped in a vicious cycle, leaving a lasting imprint on their own futures and that of her families.
Economically empowering women can change the trajectory of entire families and lead to widespread economic growth. Anchal recognizes both the need for innovative solutions to tackle this global need and the power of design to solve these inequalities.
“The most exciting part is that we’re breaking the cycle of sex working and prostitution with education,” Colleen says. “One of our artisans has a daughter she’s sending to college, which is major! It’s exciting that we’ve seen such a transformation in just six years.”
Anchal has helped 150 women break this cycle and now employs 130 women, many of whom have moved up in the organization to leadership positions. All women employed by Anchal now have their own bank accounts and control their own money. Because they live in an extremely patriarchal culture, some still have husbands attached to their accounts. But because many of them make more money than their husbands, they have power over the family’s financial decisions, Clines explains. Some women have even been able to buy their own homes.
Colleen’s sister, Maggie Clines, 27, is the creative director for Anchal. She has successfully developed, designed and grown Anchal’s brand into an internationally recognized organization. Both women are graduates of Sacred Heart and the University of Kentucky. They grew up on their family’s land near Fisherville.
They are both very proud of the impact their organization has made.
“Now [the women] have hope,” Maggie says. “Oftentimes, they didn’t before. Now, they go to the workshop and have a community of supporters, women who have gone through the same things and now they can talk about it with each other.”
Anchal also provides education for the women in areas such as financial planning and yoga while also providing health checkups a few times a year. Before working at Anchal, most of the women couldn’t even write their own names. Now, they have learned a skill and basic math skills that help them do their jobs and manage their money.
“It’s the small things that really assist in the journey of empowerment and realizing your self-worth,” Maggie Clines says, “because most of these women never really understood that they deserved something more than what they were living. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a front door for a home that had no front door.”
Nazia had never been able to afford fresh fruit. She had taken her son to the market and walked an alternate way to avoid the fruit aisle because he loved it so much and she couldn’t afford it. Now she can provide this essential source of vitamins for herself and her family.
“We also believe that for the artisans, this isn’t their end job,” Maggie Clines says. “We encourage them to go beyond us. One has opened a dress shop and one has a job in a mall, so this is just step one as their first legal job they’ve had that’s not exploitive.”
The organization has also begun working with former sex workers in Louisville. Two women, through The Center for Women and Families, have begun apprenticeships with Anchal. They have begun dyeing with indigo and made ornaments for the recent Christmas season. They’ll gradually gain more skills and make more products to be sold by Anchal.
“That was the mission from the start,” Maggie says, “to bring it closer to home but replicate the model and take it around the world. When they’re in trafficking situations [sex work] might appear to be lucrative but the money doesn’t go to them; it goes to whoever is above them. They aren’t in control. Many of them have criminal records and have no career opportunities. I think people may not be aware of this happening in Louisville, but we’re a halfway point in the country. Louisville tends to be a stop-off point [for sex trafficking].”
Talking about the issue locally brings the stories of the women in India closer to home. “Their stories are so similar,” Maggie adds.
“What we perpetuate is that India can feel very far away, but we’re all human and we’re all sisters and we want to support each other,” Maggie says. “When I start talking about the textile industry and the fashion industry and how exploitive that is and detrimental to the environment, most of what we wear every day is made overseas, so why not buy something that’s ethically produced and isn’t going to do more damage? Buy something positive and help to change someone’s life.”
Anchal also has a sponsorship program in which donors can sponsor an artisan for $1,200 per year. The sponsorship program helps ensure that the women will have a steady income to provide for their families while they work.
As Anchal grows, more women gain opportunity. Colleen and Maggie visit trade shows regularly and have been invited to speak at the 360º Fair Trade Federation Conference and Expo in Louisville in March. In January, the office moved to a new space in the Dolfinger Building, a renovated historic school building in Portland.
They hope Louisvillians take their message and spend wisely whenever possible.
“Ultimately, what we want to share is that you have so much power as a consumer and that it can seem really overwhelming with all you see on the news, and you are left thinking, ‘How can I make a difference?’ But you can just by buying a scarf,” Colleen says. “You can support us, or there are several other organizations popping up and it does have so much power. So when you source the right goods, it makes huge change.”
All products are stitched with the artisan’s name on them. One artisan recently told Colleen, “I can’t travel the world, but now my name can.”
“They’re so proud!” she adds. “Louisville’s a great city and we want to encourage that kind of global citizen.” VT
For more information or to shop, visit anchalproject.org.
By Lisa Hornung.