Sonagacchi is the largest, most infamous sex district in
Calcutta. Every day 20,000 men seek out the services of the 6,000 women
who work there. As often happens, this all runs under the nose of local
authorities. Every now and then police will make an appearance but the women
themselves are treated as non-persons.
Most of the women who work in Sonagacchi live there too. Many have been
stolen from their homes, some tricked, others sold into prostitution by
friends and family. In the class system of India, they languish at the bottom
of the heap.
Most of the women in this district can neither read nor write. This means
they can't read the signs that would allow them to catch a bus beyond the
few routes they might already know or to sign their name on official documents.
Some only earn the money their madams give them and as they often can't
count, are frequently swindled at the markets as if they were visiting tourists.
A woman in Sonagacchi can live her entire life within a one-kilometer radius
of where she sells her body. She could literally work, sleep and die all
in the same bed.
Kerry working in the factory
Women "standing in line" in Sonagacchi
In 1999 Kerry and Annie Hilton decided to leave their idyllic lifestyle in Albany, New Zealand and move
to India to establish a business amongst the poor. When they unwittingly
moved their family into Sonagacchi, the poor they found themselves helping
were sex workers.
Realising that to make a real difference charity just wouldn't cut it, the
Hiltons set about creating a viable business, teaching the women to read
and write as well as training them to become skilled workers and business
women. After much product research and market testing, Kerry decided that
manufacturing jute bags for export would be a realistic proposition. They
called the business Freeset
and signed up their
first business partners: 20 older women from the district who were - albeit
reluctantly - willing to give foreigners with good intentions another go.
travelled to Calcutta to meet the Hilton
family, their four gorgeous kids, and the indomitable women the Hiltons'