After a successful Indiegogo campaign, funded at 104%, The Empowerment Bag is now on the market selling fashionable and functional bags that empower women at-risk of sexual exploitation in West Bengal, India.
The brand works with a collective of women they were connected to through Common Objective. They provide sewing training, literacy skills, and of course, employment with fair wages, with a goal of helping their women become financially independent.
“I’m 38-years old and have one teenage son in secondary school. This job trained me in sewing and taught me to read and write. I remember signing my name to collect my first salary. I’ll never forget that day in my life.” – Rima – Employee at The Empowerment Bag
Their duffle, messenger and satchel-style bags are not only socially responsible but also environmentally friendly! Each bag is made from GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified cotton and is Fair Trade Guaranteed by WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization). Although young, the brand is already looking at other eco-friendly materials to use for future designs, such as jute, a vegetable fiber which they use to make their satchel bags.
Founder, Vaishali Umrikar, talks about her journey creating The Empowerment Bag starting from a passion to fight sex trafficking from her high school days. Although not a designer, she talks about how the experience has been an exciting challenge as she learns to incorporate creativity into her strategic and innovative idea.
See below for a Q & A with the founder of The Empowerment Bag, Vaishali Umrikar.
Who were the masterminds behind the design of the bags?
I certainly don’t have a design background, so honestly, this part has been an exciting challenge! I worked alongside my manufacturer to design the bags.
I think the most important thing as an entrepreneur is to have a clear, detailed vision.
If you have this and can communicate it well, then people with other skills sets will help you along the way. A designer at my manufacturing facility helped me with the final artwork for the bags. I am currently working on new product designs for 2019; as I learn more about the design process, I can do a better job and make even more stylish bags!
Tell us about you! What inspired you to work in combatting sex trafficking?
In high school, I serendipitously picked up a book entitled The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade. I think something about the cover called me to it. Also, I was studying Russian at the time, and my Russian nickname was Natasha. The book ended up being about the trafficking of Russian women from Eastern Europe to the West. It was the first time I heard about sex trafficking, and I couldn’t believe what I was learning!
“I remember sobbing my way through the book. Reading about the exploitation of innocent young girls and women who were tricked into sexual slavery left me angry, upset, and appalled.”
I found it all so jarring and atrocious that I knew I had to do something to stop the injustice. At that moment, I knew I had to make fighting sex trafficking my purpose in life.
Why West Bengal, India?
When I initially formulated the idea for The Empowerment Bag, I was just looking for an ethical manufacturer that matched our mission…it didn’t matter as much where in the world they were located. When I started researching suppliers and found my current partner facility, I loved the program and facility they’d created. They train and employ over 200 women to make apparel and accessories. The women are provided an alternative to the sex trade through sewing skills, literacy training, and fair wage employment. And they happened to work out of West Bengal, India!
I was born in India and still visit my homeland because most of my family still lives there. There is still a lot of gender inequality in India, and the trafficking and exploitation of young women is a big problem. We may expand to working with facilities in other parts of the world that fit our vision.
Who conducts your workshops teaching these at-risk women how to sew and read?
My partner facility in India has staff that teach the women how to sew. The women are given thorough training to learn the skills. After the women learn how to sew bags, they move on to complicated projects like apparel. It’s a huge time investment. Staff, volunteers, and partners assist with teaching the women how to read and write. My manufacturer has a non-profit partner called Tamar which helps provide budgeting skills, health education, and after-school programs to the women and their children.
What does sex trafficking look like in India today and how are NGOs and the government working to end sexual exploitation?
Estimates suggest millions of women and children are victims of sex trafficking in India. The 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report regarded India as a Tier 2 country. This means India doesn’t fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but it’s making significant efforts to combat the issue.
The government identified 3 times as many victims as previously in 2018 and increased its budget for shelter programs for survivors of trafficking. India’s border guard force on the India-Nepal border is running various awareness activities about trafficking for students and border communities. However, overall victim protection is lackluster.
Victims are often the ones still arrested rather than the true perpetrators. The number of investigations, prosecutions, and convictions by the government are very low relative to the number of trafficking cases. The government also has a long history of not investigating allegations against officials complicit in trafficking.
There are several wonderful NGOs in India working to prevent trafficking as well as to provide resources to survivors of sexual exploitation. A few such organizations are Prerana, Prajwala, Apne Aap, and of course New Light.
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I am a social entrepreneur. That means I use business as a catalyst for social goodness. I am deeply passionate about sustainable travel, zero waste living, ethical fashion and social good. I currently run North India's first zero waste guesthouse, Hara House, and am the Content Director at Causeartist.