Ella Martin is a student studying development at Victoria University. Through 2018 she has been volunteering as an intern with Banzaid, so see some practical examples of how development works. Here she reflects on Banzaid’s Freedom Businesses project with Freeset in Kolkata.
Freeset is a freedom business set up in 2001. The business was founded to offer women trapped in Kolkata’s sex industry an alternative choice for employment. Located in Sonagacchi, a major red-light district where an estimated 10,000 women live and work, Freeset has now grown into a sustainable business, with 250 women being employed. A dream for the business, and for the women that work there, is to have 10,000 employees. Banzaid involvement in Freeset includes development skills and advice to the project, while also being responsible for all liaison with the Partnerships Fund and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for their funding support.
My journey with development studies took a turn when I visited Kolkata in India at the start of 2017. A crew of six got together, and we visited a friend of ours who works for Freeset. The six of us had the privilege of seeing the new Gateway building in production, visit the Freeset crew in Murshidabad weaving scarves, and the local fabrics and apparel production building in Sonagacchi district.
I went over to India as a learner - and this proved to be difficult. I found myself struggling to comprehend how to let what I had learned in West Bengal influence my daily life back in New Zealand. My trip to Freeset triggered a lot of the questions around development that I still hold today. Being a part of the Banzaid team has allowed me to think and learn about the model around which Freeset was formed, and to better understand different aspects of it.
Freeset follows a small to medium enterprise business model, where business is used as a tool for development. I used to scoff at businesses which were set up for development purposes – always wanting something back for what they gave, too market influenced for my liking, and just another technique to westernise the global south. Yes, Freeset can be seen as a company where items are produced for the Western market – but the freedom business model also holds so much more than that. It is an empowering model which gives women freedom, opportunity and choice. It not only provides women another way to earn a living. It also provides counselling, healthcare, childcare, budgeting skills and help with debt management.
A testament to the impact Freeset is making can be seen and heard through Mina’s story. Mina has been a part of Freeset’s story from the start. Like many other girls, she had been fooled into working in the red-light district. Before Freeset arrived in 1999, she was already fighting for many woman’s freedom in the area. Now, working in partnership with Freeset, she talks with the women in brothels, walks the streets, and acts a reminder to women working the trade that they are seen, that they are not forgotten. Freeset isn’t just a business for development; Freeset represents freedom. It represents Mina’s story and the 10,000 others which they are hoping to provide freedom for.
Possibly the ‘spark’ that Freeset has about their business is that they are explicitly Christian, no apologies made. With this, there is an intentional focus on well-being, a specific focus towards a person’s spiritual well-being, and allowing for the woman to remain embedded within their community if they wish. I believe this is one of the aspects of Freeset that allows them to be an empowering, freedom giving, liberating business - so much more than just a business for development.
Within my studies I have been taking papers in environmental studies. Therefore, I can’t help but question and reflect about the sustainability of economic businesses with the current environmental state (and the predicted state) of the world. Freeset isn’t just about producing bags and clothes, it is also about providing freedom and empowering women. But, is creating more products for people to buy the best use of resources? Resources are finite, and we live on a linear planet. To use business as a tool for development places economic development as the priority, but is this as sustainable as we hope? Do we really need more ‘stuff’ in the world? The way I see it, people are always going to want/need clothes to wear and bags to have. An ideal situation would see the market shifting to where people bought from fair trade, ‘doing good’, freedom businesses such as Freeset for their supplies, rather than from Farmers, The Warehouse or Kmart. This ideal situation seems like a big job, but as the Hiltons (founders of Freeset) say - we have a big God.
My reflection on the Freeset business model is that when the sole purpose of creating a business is on bringing freedom for women and their children (rather than focusing on economic purposes) it holds an incredibly empowering notion. Freedom businesses challenge every aspect and assumption I held around businesses for development. I hope that Freeset, and other freedom businesses alike, can gain enough exposure and recognition so that the vision of 10,000 women being employed becomes a reality.