A lot of sex trafficking activism focuses on getting the victims away from their traffickers and into safety. But what happens to victims after they are rescued?
That question had been on Jane Mosbacher Morris's mind for a long time — she has worked with vulnerable and victimized women with the U.S. State Department since 2007 — and the answer for her came while traveling to India a few years ago.
She visited a workshop where women made beautiful, brightly-colored saris into handbags and home decor. All of the employees at Sari Bari were from Calcutta's red light district where they had once been trafficking victims.
Mosbacher Morris searched for more "survivor-made" organizations and found, among others, basket makers in Rwanda and weavers in Nepal. In spring of 2014 she launched To The Market, an online boutique that that sells jewelry, clothes and home decor that look like they could be sold at retailers like Anthropologie — but have been created by women who are rebuilding their lives.
"I watched women struggle to move forward with their lives after experiencing trauma," says Morris. "Social services were crucial — but food and shelter were just band-aids. They don't build a life."
The dignity of work
Mosbacher Morris was inspired by the "light in the eyes" of the women she saw working in India.
"There was something different about them than the beneficiaries of other programs," said Mosbacher Morris. "The dignity of work can be transformational."
It makes sense, since trafficking victims are deprived of the dignity of and stability of having their own earnings, she says, and work gives control and choice.
"When a woman gets things from social services, she doesn't get to say she doesn't like those sheets, or she doesn't especially like to eat rice."
To The Market features goods made by over 1,000 women working for partner organizations around the world — featuring handicrafts that have a tradition in that place — including leather goods from Pakistan and cashmere scarves from Kashmir. Mosbacher Morris found most of the partners through networks from her previous jobs, and through word of mouth.
All of the organizations must meet guiding principles outlined by To The Market, including a living wage and workplace safety guidelines. When a customer buys an ikat crossbody bag or a paper bead necklace, for example, from To The Market, the order and shipment details are sent directly to the partner, who ships the goods to the customer.
Partner employees are paid hourly or a salary wage by their employers that is not contingent on sales, and To The Market keeps 20 percent to cover overhead costs and run the site.
Mosbacher Morris, who works pro bono, decided on business as opposed to a nonprofit model early on, because she didn't want to be dependent on donations to pay her partners.
"It's so taxing to fundraise, and the climate is so competitive. I didn't want to be in a position where people didn't get paid because someone's budget got cut."
The site design is all pastels and softly-lit photography; it's more reminiscent of a fashion blog than a causes site. All of that is by design, says Mosbacher Morris.
"We want it to be uplifting," says. "In talking to survivors, they don't want trauma to be the thing to be what defines them forever."
It's also important for the product to be appealing and on-trend to attract western shoppers in order to drive sales. To The Market provides its sellers with trend forecasting so that handicrafters know that pink and green are coming in for spring, for example, or that chokers are out but chain necklaces are in.
Margeaux Gray says she was trafficked for sex from the time she 5 until she was 18 while she was growing up in Kentucky. Now 35, she plays an advisory role for To The Market's board of directors. Gray was trafficked by a family friend who took advantage of the family's trust.
One of the difficulties with raising awareness on sex trafficking, she says, is that it's a "dark and heavy subject," and it can be hard for people to acknowledge.
"When you ignore the problem, you ignore a victim, and make them feel hopeless," says Gray, who is now an activist, public speaker and artist.
Gray sees To The Market as an uplifting way to get involved. "It's hopeful, it's beautiful, and it can spread empathy and compassion, " she says.
Just as important, it provides security for those who have been robbed of it. "Freedom comes in many forms," says Gray, "and one of them is financial."