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 and Nilima

Kerry working in the factory

Evie and Rachel

Women "standing in line" in Sonagacchi


The birth of Freeset
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.

Evie Ashton travelled to Calcutta to meet the Hilton family, their four gorgeous kids, and the indomitable women the Hiltons' call family.