This post is part of a fifteen-day series covering my trip to Kolkata, India in May 2013. Some entries have been slightly edited for length or content, but they are mostly copied directly from my journal.

2:15pm
Hotel Circular, Kolkata
Room 44

Thursdays are days off for Mother Teresa’s volunteers. Tom connected with the folks at Word Made Flesh’s local business/ministry, Sari Bari.

To be honest, I’ve been skeptical of Word Made Flesh, a Christian aid organization, since the days when my sister Karen served with them. That was back in 2000 or so. She didn’t have the best experience, but I don’t recall a lot of the details. I do remember that back then, at least, there seemed to be an elitism among the people from the organization that implied that people who worked to serve the poor were somehow better or more godly than those whose lives took them elsewhere. I don’t know that that is what they were actually teaching, but that was the vibe I got from the people I met and the stories I was hearing. (I also remember reading a Word Made Flesh staff member’s comment in a Kolkata bookstore’s guest book–something along the lines of, “Terrible service! Typical India. SLOW, SLOW, SLOW!” That didn’t endear me to the organization.)

So I was a little hesitant to get excited about meeting up with people from the organization. I did, however, want to learn more about Sari Bari. Here’s what I learned today.

Sari Bari is a company that employs women who have worked in the sex industry but want to work elsewhere. Their employees sew blankets and bags out of old saris. The workers are paid well, can attend literacy classes, have a comfortable place to work, and get to stay in their local communities for work. They are provided with healthcare services and vouchers for their children to attend school. There is no obligation or pressure for any employee to convert to Christianity, although a very small number of the 90 employees have.

We met Beth, who has worked with WMF for years, at a metro station near the Sari Bari offices. We sat on the roof of a building, a former brothel, that they just bought and plan to renovate once they have the funds. It was a hot morning in the sun, but I really enjoyed talking with Beth and hearing her perspective.

At times, I am skeptical of groups that “combat” sex trafficking, because I’ve heard stories of organizations trying to do good but actually doing a lot of damage, like getting women arrested or just making life more difficult for the workers. I also hear about organizations that are supposed to be doing good things, but what can you trust from what they put on their website or in their videos? It was great, then, to set foot on the property of an organization that is trying to make a difference for women who have been the victims of sex trafficking and women who want to leave sex work.

Sari Bari doesn’t set off any red flags for me. They employ women who want to leave sex work–they don’t try to employ women who are still owned by anyone else, which is one of the things that allows them to develop a good relationship with the people in their community. They are rooted within the neighborhood and have earned the respect of their neighbors. The working conditions are great–clean bathrooms, lots of fans and fresh air, appropriate break times, family friendly for those with small children. When we visited the building where the workers sew the bags, everyone was taking a tea break, laughing and talking.

In some ways, visiting Sari Bari was a bit like visiting Titagarh, the leprosy community. The similarities are plentiful: we were there on a tour, we looked at where they worked, we had the chance to buy their wares. The big difference for the students is that at Sari Bari, they could ask a lot more questions and feel far more informed about what they were seeing and what was going on.

I may have gone into the morning with some hesitation, but I’m happy with what I saw. Sari Bari seems to be a good, morally upright employer of women who have had a lot stacked against them. I’m glad to be able to say that they are an organization worth supporting. As a feminist, I am struck by the way that they are returning autonomy to women who have had it taken from them. In some cases, they’re giving it to them for the first time. What a good and practical thing to be doing in the world.

Photo credit: Sari Bari blog

Photo credit: Sari Bari blog

***

7:32pm

My team is great, but I need some time to myself. They went out shopping and for dinner, and I stayed in. It was a great choice. i got some quiet time, eating dinner on my own in the hotel restaurant and catching up on Facebook. In a bit, we’ll get together in the guys’ room for some debriefing/processing. (What clinical terms!) Then to bed. Two more days of volunteering and the trip is over. I am happy here, but ready to get home to Ruthie.

Photo gallery of team debriefing activity:

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