India has one of the highest human trafficking rates of anywhere else in the world. Though exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that approximately 60,000 women and girls are in prostitution because they have been either lured, coaxed, bribed with false pretenses or offered help of some sort to get out of a crisis situation.

The need for help is great, the situation for these women desperate – they truly have what seems like no other way out. In their eyes there is n0 hope, no one to fight for them, to give them a shoulder to stand on.

Sari Bari desires to be there, to stand in the gap for these women, to help them realize that there is so much more available to them literally at their very fingertips.

Sari Bari beautiful hands


from Sari Bari on Vimeo

Sari Bari New Life in the Making

{Vintage Recycled Sari Kantha Products}

The staff and support team at Sari Bari visit the red light areas of Kolkata, making connections and starting relationships with the women there.

At the right time they offer each woman an opportunity to leave the sex trade to work at Sari Bari. When she accepts, she is encouraged and supported up to her start date – her first day at Sari Bari is celebrated with a birthday cake, a freedom birthday celebration.

Sari Bari freedom birthday

(photo credit)

I had a chance to chat with one of the co-founders, Sarah Lance, to learn more about Sari Bari.

sari bari new life in the making

Sari Bari was born out of relationship with women in the red light areas.  We saw a need to provide opportunities for women who had aged out of rescue from the sex trade.

Sadly, once a woman is trafficked and not rescued,  she has very few options for exiting prostitution having been rejected by her family and also deeply stigmatized by the culture.  So the possibility of  a way out was needed!

Sari Bari’s vision is very simply to see the transformation of the red light area and to be agents of freedom to women who have no or limited choices.  We want to provide opportunity through employment to women who are vulnerable to trafficking because of poverty.  And the opportunity may be for the first time, to make a choice to leave the commercial sex trade for women who have aged out of rescue.

Sari Bari refuge

We seek to be a safe place where women can find love, and rediscover their value and inherent dignity as women and as human beings.

The mission and means to freedom is employment and training as an artisan.  Then we desire to  connect the artisan to the consumer creating a beautiful partnership for freedom. 

What is the situation in India with human trafficking?


I (Sarah) have been here in Kolkata for a very long time (12 plus years) and I have been in and out of the red light area thousands and thousands of times. I walk by the girls and women standing on the main road late at night and in the middle of the afternoon, I pass by in a taxi searching their faces hoping I don’t see one that I know.

I find this wrenching still. I can walk through the area without thinking sometimes, blocking the reality so I can get where I need to go, see whom I need to see.  And still sometimes, my breath catches and tears well up, at this insanity, as I pass by an endless line of pretty girls, painted and dead in the eyes.

My heart still longs, aches and burns with the desire for freedom. For something completely different than this reality.

The Human Trafficking situation of women and girls in India is devastating, vastly under-reported. It has not been slowed, the tide is not stemmed, and it presses forward on its path of destruction.   We truly are merely sandbagging the tide.

Freeset Kolkata

One of the driving factors in Human trafficking in Asia is poverty.  Poverty compels people to do things they would not do otherwise, like marry a daughter off at 12 or send her to work in someone’s house in the city just so there won’t be another mouth to feed.

Poverty makes people, families, children vulnerable to exploitation.  Vulnerability lessens when there is education and economic opportunity where people live.  So bringing ethical businesses to places like West Bengal, into the villages, helps lessen vulnerability by creating economic empowerment for women where they live.

How are you involved in supporting rescued women?

Sari Bari helps to provide an economic solution to an economic problem, a sandbag that has provided employment to 120 women.

Still 60,000 remain trapped in the sex trade in Kolkata alone and countless others vulnerable to trafficking.

Sari Bari is not a rescue organization – we are business that provides employment to women who have aged out of rescue (18-50 years old), who want to RESCUE THEMSELVES and make a choice for a new life.

Sari bari sewing

We specifically targeted a high trafficking area in West Bengal to open a Prevention Focused Unit in 2010.  In that Unit we  hire young women who are vulnerable to being trafficked due to poverty and also women who are 25 to 35 who may have daughters who would actually be the most vulnerable (daughters aged 10-14 years).

Women with daughters are employed with the condition that they will keep their daughter in school and not send her out for work away from home.

Partner in Brighter Futures: The women of Sari Bari have incredible dreams for their children, and Sari Bari is passionate about partnering with its employees to ensure brighter futures for their children. Any employee can enroll in this program by contributing 24% of their child’s annual expenses while Sari Bari contributes 76% of the annual expenses.

A sponsorship of $60 will cover one child for an entire year.

Can you walk us through the basic steps of how your artisans come to be involved with working for Sari Bari?

In the early days, we spent hours on end in the red light area building relationships, inviting women to come and see Sari Bari and other freedom businesses in the area.  We built trust in the community over a long period of many years.

Now, we mainly have a steady stream of women coming through our doors looking for freedom.

Sari Bari freedom in their hands

The women of Sari Bari have a deep passion for seeing their sisters in the red light area find freedom. We  have seen the best advocates for freedom and employment at Sari Bari are women of Sari Bari themselves who invite others to come and seek work with us.

Partner for Training: Each new employee at Sari Bari goes through a six-month training period before they begin full-time work. During this time, the women learn to sew and receive valuable life skills that empower them to transition out of the sex trade. Each day of this crucial period of time involves many steps toward new life. Training includes literacy training, a monthly stipend, budgeting class, full medical check-up, graduation gift among other things.

$30 for one month or $180 to sponsor one woman’s complete 6 month training.

What are some of the benefits the women receive?

The women at Sari Bari are paid fair wages based on Fair Trade standards, as well as health insurance, a company matched retirement plan, school support for their children to stay in school, and a community of support and care.  Sari Bari also ensures a Well Woman Check up every two years in addition to the health insurance.

Partner in Health:  All employees of Sari Bari have medical coverage through health insurance, but in order to also ensure the woman can secure preventative care, Sari Bari provides Well Woman Checkups – a comprehensive health screening – for each woman upon completion of training and every other year thereafter for as long as she works at Sari Bari.  Through these screenings, many women have been able to receive healthcare for needs ranging from controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, HIV care, and even chemotherapy.

One woman’s check-up cost is $25.

What is one of the greatest joys and deepest impact you have seen in the lives of some of your artisans?

In the early days of Sari Bari, we hoped and dream for heroes.  For women who would rise up and be apart of leading Sari Bari and championing the cause of freedom for more women.  It is a dream that we have seen become a reality.

Sari Bari’s daily operations are run by women who have freedom from the sex trade  and are leading other women to freedom with their example.  As Managers at Sari Bari they have the opportunity to share their own story and be an encouragement to those who are new.  They can say,” I have been where you are, and you can do it.”

To see the women, who were once victimized,  now as  transformed leaders and the foundation of Sari Bari leaves me in awe!  They are the embodiment of Hope for me and those they now serve with Sari Bari as leaders.

How can others get involved in the fight against human trafficking and supporting the work that Sari Bari is doing?

Sari Bari is a business, so we want people to buy Sari Bari products and tell their friends about it.  We believe that we are making something of quality and beauty with the added value of the story behind who made it.

Sari Bari kantha work

This summer will begin a fundraising campaign to open the doors of a new space which will reserve space specifically for girls coming out of Aftercare homes.

The question must be asked “what happens ‘after’ aftercare?” And we hope to be a part of the answer to the question and be a partof the solution that prevents the re-trafficking of these vulnerable girls by providing them employment, a supportive community and ongoing counselling and care.

What kind of encouragement or advice can you offer to people who want to be more involved in changing the lives of others, whether through supporting fair trade or taking a stand in the fight against human trafficking?

I think taking a stand against human trafficking is taking a stand for for human dignity and the value of each person.  People are not property, they are endless possibility! The impact of people choosing to value other people no matter the circumstance goes a long way toward changing the ethos that human life is cheap and a commodity to be bought and sold.

So step one, love the people around you well.

Step two, be engaged in your local community building bridges for the marginalized and those whose voice may need to be amplified.

Step three, think about how and where you spend your money—your resources can make a positive impact through ethical and fair trade purchasing.

If you are going to go out in the world to build your own social business or non-profit be prepared to give your life, so to speak—building a business is hard, building one with vulnerable and traumatized people is even harder.  Go, listen, and learn from others who are doing it and  then make a long term investment that makes an impact.

The traffickers are deeply invested and committed to their work and so we should also be, even more so to freedom and justice! The rewards are worth the cost!


Sari Bari is in the business of not only offering new life to these women, but teaching them to make beautiful things from recycled, vintage saris.

Sari Bari Hasina Tote Bag

Sari bari throws

Mota makeup bag sari bari

The exquisite and intricate kantha style is an ancient Bengali tradition – 5 layers of used saris are sewn together with a single running stitch to create something new. The effect is quite stunning and creates an extraordinary, unique item with a story all its own.

Sari Bari throw blanket

 Check out many more redemptively made kantha products in the Sari Bari store!