Emancipation Project

By Brian Morris

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

Each year, roughly 600,000 women and young girls are trafficked and sold into forced prostitution. Some are eventually rescued, or manage to escape. They're taken to shelters, where they receive medical attention and counseling, and slowly begin rebuilding their lives. As part of their recovery, many sex trade survivors work with their hands to create clothing, jewelry and handicrafts. Now, an East Sandwich non-profit is helping these women market their skills in the U.S.

On a recent Spring evening, a small group of women arrive for a house party in Bourne.

Around the living room, tables are laid out with brightly colored satin purses, hand- beaded jewelry, and exquisite paper note cards and journals. One table has a colorful collection of beach bags, backpacks, and palm pilot holders, all made from recycled rice bags.

The scene resembles any Tupperware party, except for one difference: The items on sale were all handmade by trafficking survivors from Southeast Asia. And their unique handiwork has found its way to the US through a Cape Cod non-profit group called The Emancipation Network.

Sarah Symons: "We don't ask questions about their past, or ask them to re-visit that in any way. We're really about now, and the present and the future for them."

Sarah Symons is The Emancipation Network's founder. In 2003, the East Sandwich resident began volunteering in the US for Maiti Nepal, one of the world's largest shelters for trafficking survivors. Eventually, she was invited to visit the shelter in Nepal and meet some of the women there. When Symons asked the director what the women needed most, the answer was "self-sufficiency."

Sarah Symons: "We were brainstorming about what we could do to maybe make that a possibility. And the very next day, I was walking through the shelter and came upon a room just stacked with these fabulous, glitzy, shiny, just beautiful products. And I asked Anorana, 'What about these?' And she said, 'We are creating those for therapeutic purposes, and we really can't sell 'em in Nepal, because those products are a dime a dozen here - they're not unique or unusual.'"

Symons had a hunch the intricately-crafted items would appeal to American women, so she purchased a small sampling to bring home. They sold out immediately, and her husband suggested selling the merchandise at home parties. The concept caught on, and The Emancipation Network now holds "Awareness Parties" nationwide, selling merchandise created by 1,200 to 1,500 women. One of those women is So Cheat. She works at AFESIP Fair Fashion, an income-generating activity for trafficking survivors run by the AFESIP shelter in Cambodia. So Cheat has been there for over three years, and is now a Cutting Team leader.

So Cheat: (speaking on phone through translator) "As a Team Leader, I have to do cutting of the clothes. But before cutting the clothes, I have to prepare the paper pattern, and complete the designs that the client or the buyer requested."

So Cheat recently married, and is expecting her first child in August. Her job has freed her from the abject poverty so many other survivors face, and she says she wouldn't want to work anywhere else.

So Cheat: "I am really proud of what I am doing. Actually, before I came to the organization - to work in here - I didn't have the skill. However, after I came to work and I have the skill, I got a salary, and I am really happy with this. I'm really hoping my life would be very good in the future."

Despite all they've been through, most survivors manage to be optimistic about their future, says Sarah Symons.

Sarah Symons: "The survivors don't wanna be totally dependent on the shelters. They wanna have an independent life and apartment, maybe get married, raising a family, just simple things like that. And for that, they need to have a job. So for the survivors, it's a very prized thing to be able to have paid work. And doing crafts is enjoyable, and most people enjoy it both here and there."

Survivors also enjoy an immediate financial benefit from their work.

Sarah Symons: "They set the price for the product, and we buy it outright, not on consignment. So as soon as they sell it to us, they get paid for it - and then, once we have the product, it's our responsibility to try to sell it and recoup that cost. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't, but they benefit right away."

All proceeds from tonight's party will be used to purchase additional merchandise. Emancipation Network Chairman Bruce Netherwood says it's still a grass-roots effort, and eradicating human trafficking can only happen through a groundswell of action that begins at the local level.

Bruce Netherwood: "I think we're in the infancy of dealing with it. I think it's just very slow. I think we're gonna be dealing with it for a generation, long past when we're no longer here. But yeah, you do it one person at a time, and you keep educating and spreading the word."

The Awareness Parties are celebrations, even though the guests of honor, the survivors themselves, can't be present. But they're represented in every silken handbag, patchwork quilt and beaded bracelet. And each purchase helps empower those young women half a world away, who are still learning what it means to have hope for the future.

To make a donation or to find out how to host an awareness event, visit emancipationnetwork.org.

Broadcast June 15, 2006

Brian Morris for the Cape and Islands NPR stations.