By Melissa Anne Wuske
Emily Hill first heard about human trafficking when she was 22. She was on a trip to Thailand with some other Christian college students. The group visited a home for girls at risk of being trafficked in the sex industry. She was overwhelmed by the vulnerability of their situation—and astonished by their hope.
Over the next six years she mulled it over, researched trafficking, earned an MA in Economics, and built a career in market research analytics. Through it all, the question never left her: What unique part could she play in the big picture of ending human trafficking?
Out of those musings came Stop Traffick Fashion (stoptraffickfashion.com). Emily combined her business know-how with her love of fashion, creating a business that sells jewelry, handbags, and T-shirts made by survivors of human trafficking. STF partners with organizations around the world that do hands-on work rescuing and rehabilitating trafficking victims.
Since it began in 2009, STF has crafted its product line, created its own signature designs, developed its online presence, and recruited volunteers. Most recently Emily left market research to pursue an MA in social justice at Kilns College.
Emily is often asked why she chose this route to fight human trafficking. Why not fight legal battles or counsel victims or fundraise for larger organizations? First, it’s suited to her strengths—and if people work in accordance with their strengths to pursue just ends, powerful change occurs. Second, STF plays a critical role in the rehabilitation of survivors of trafficking.
A Vital Role
At first it may seem that STF is simply an add-on to the hands-on work of other organizations. But one of the key pieces of rehabilitation is job skills training. Women rescued from trafficking build a sense of dignity and confidence through their work, and they learn a skill that helps them provide for their families. It also protects them and their children from being trafficked in the future. STF’s products create a customer base that ensures the worth and security that are at the heart of healing for survivors of human trafficking.
In addition to empowering survivors of human trafficking, Stop Traffick Fashion empowers consumers. STF gives everyday people the knowledge and means to make a difference. In the face of an immense problem like human trafficking, it’s easy for people to be overwhelmed, even paralyzed, by the size of the problem.
STF believes that helping spread the word about human trafficking is powerful and can happen through simple, unintimidating, everyday conversations—even those that begin with, “I love that necklace! Where did you get it?” By curating and designing a collection of fashionable pieces, STF encourages these conversations and taps into the power of consumers—both those who have human rights at heart and those who simply love a beautiful handbag.
Living Examples of Freedom
Sometimes it’s difficult to see how buying or selling a T-shirt can make a difference in the lives of women around the world. But it does. To maintain perspective, Emily and I (her communications director) read books, news stories, and newsletters from other organizations—and we travel to our suppliers when we can. (You can read stories of the women who make STF products at stoptraffickfashion.com/stories.)
In West Bengal, India I visited Freeset, a vendor in Kolkata’s Sonagachi red light district that trains women coming out of the sex trade to make handbags and T-shirts. There I met two women and watched the first steps of change in their lives.
Nearly all the Freeset women still live in the same brothel rooms they lived in before they left the sex trade. Since the rooms are usually rented individually, they can continue to live there without selling their bodies.
Since the sex trade is not something the women chose for themselves, they’re rarely tempted to return to it. Not all the women in Sonagachi have the freedom to leave the trade; but unlike trafficking victims and prostitutes in some areas of the world, most of the women in Sonagachi aren’t imprisoned. They are trapped by poverty and lack of education. Most have debts they owe to brothel keepers and have husbands or boyfriends who demand money from them. But most can leave the trade—with help, courage, and opportunity.
Every day Freeset women walk home through sex lanes, past women waiting in the street. They cross lines of prostitutes to enter their homes. And they do it with hope in their eyes and no shame in their hearts.
Nearly all the women who work at Freeset began working there because they saw the change in someone else’s life. By seeing a neighbor’s life change, they realize they have a choice.
The Beginning of Change
While visiting, I spent time with Kerry, one of the founders of Freeset, and with Mina, a member of the Freeset leadership committee. Mina is a middle aged woman who was trafficked from Bangladesh as a young teen. They met with a group of women who were interested in working at Freeset to make sure they were eligible for employment (over 18 and in or at-risk of entering the sex trade) and to help them anticipate the challenges they would face when leaving the sex trade.
The first room we visited was only as wide as the twin bed it contained. There was about a foot of space at the end of the bed by the door. In this small space a young woman trafficked from Bangladesh lived and worked. We sat on the bed while the woman, her friend, and the woman who ran the brothel stood in the door. Through the conversation, Kerry and Mina found out about the woman’s boyfriend who took much of the money she earned. They also examined a meager medical report she received from a doctor she had visited at a free clinic. She couldn’t read, so she had no idea what the doctor had diagnosed: HIV.
Later that afternoon we visited a larger brothel room. Inside lived a husband and wife and their 18-year-old daughter. They had a bed and a dresser and a little floor space. The mother had worked in the trade but was now too old; the father wasn’t working. The girl had never been in the trade and had never been to school. It was clear that as soon as an illness struck one of her parents, this young girl would be standing on the street. Her eyes revealed fear and earnestness. What would it be like to grow up for 18 years in this room and watch your future play out in vivid detail through the life of your mother?
The next morning both of these young women started work at Freeset. The first young lady received health insurance coverage and guidance to help her through the tough years ahead. The second was able to escape the fate that had been hovering over her since the day she was born.
How can you be part of these women’s story of freedom and hope? Equipping and encouraging everyday abolitionists—people using their skills, talents, and opportunities to fight trafficking—is at the heart of STF. Here are some ways you can get started.
Pray fervently and specifically. In the face of a God-sized problem and the God-sized hurts it creates in the lives of victims, our best response is to ask God to help and heal. Pray for survivors, the counselors and social workers who assist them, the law enforcement personnel and lawyers who fight for them, and those who are near them but are blind to the problems.
Use the power of social media to share information. You can start with an STF blog post or the “What Is Human Trafficking?” page.
Join the STF Social Media Ambassador program to get periodic e-mails with content you can share on Facebook, Twitter, and more.
Use your purchase power to show what’s important to you as you Christmas shop. Start in the STF store, then check out the listing of other ethical fashion retailers.
Find out from Polaris Project about anti-trafficking laws in your state and sign petitions for stronger laws.
Program the Polaris Project Hotline into your phone and use it if you see something suspicious.
Think about your skills, abilities, and interests. Find an organization you’re uniquely suited to help, or get creative and find ways, big and small, to take steps toward change and justice in your area and around the world.
Melissa Anne Wuske is a freelance writer and editor and is the Communications Director for Stop Traffick Fashion. She and her husband, Shawn, are working toward planting a church in Boston, Massachusetts.
Books on Human Trafficking
A Crime So Monstrous
by Benjamin Skinner
(Free Press, 2009)
Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy
by Kevin Bales
(University of California Press, 2012)
Good News About Injustice
by Gary A. Haugen
(IVP Books, 2009)
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian
by Gary A. Haugen
(IVP Books, 2008)
Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—and How We Can Fight It
by David Batstone
The Road of Lost Innocence
by Somaly Mam
(Random House, 2009)
The Slave Across the Street
by Teresa Flores
(Ampelon Publishing, 2010)
The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today
by Ron Soodalter and Kevin Bales
(University of California Press, 2010)
Terrify No More
by Gary A. Haugen and Gregg Hunter
(Thomas Nelson, 2010)
Get Dressed, Get Involved
“Started in 2009, Stop Traffick Fashion provides opportunities and hope for survivors of human trafficking, while offering you stunning ethical fashion.”
“Polaris Project is committed to combating human trafficking and modern-day slavery, and to strengthening the anti-trafficking movement through a comprehensive approach.”