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From the Sex Trade to Fair Trade: A Story of Empowerment

10/01/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

October is Fair Trade Month. What follows is an excerpt from Fair Trade: a human journey by Éric St-Pierre.

One hundred kilometres north of Dhaka, the city of Mymensingh is known for the dearth of motorized vehicles on its streets...but also for its rickshaw traffic jams! In a location downtown, ten or so young Bangladeshi women are gathered. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) programs in this urban area of more than 300,000 inhabitants target the disadvantaged of a quite different world. The women here are neither refugees, nor widows, nor victims of natural disasters. "We often introduce them as survivors," Bita Narua, an MCC Bangladesh community worker, explains delicately. Barely two months ago, these women walked the streets of Mymensingh's red light district looking for clients. "Thanks to assistance from local partners, we've recruited a number of girls, who had to be prepared to leave their old work completely behind to join the program."

Gathered around the meeting facilitator, they recount their painful personal stories, sometimes with laughter but usually with tears. With scars on her left eye and a maturity that belies her 22 years, Shilpi gives the impression that she has lived through a great deal. "When I was younger, I worked as a maid in a wealthy family, where I was raped. We wanted to take the guilty man to court but because my family was poor and they were rich, we didn't succeed," she says, wiping away a tear. "We were harassed on all sides; my father even lost his job, because his daughter was a "bad girl," she says curtly.

Later, in the modest house where she lives with her mother and her three children, Shilpi tells me about her descent into hell. "I remember that my father had to go from door to door to beg for a little rice. I was 15 when he died of a heart attack. That's when I started walking the streets. I wore my mother's dresses because I didn't have anything to wear." She wipes her red eyes again. "The street isn't a life. You come to an agreement with a client but then you find yourself surrounded by five men. Often, I wasn't even paid or I was beaten." Suddenly, shouts from outside interrupt her story. She says "Do you hear that? Do you hear that? Those are former clients. They're saying, 'Bangladeshis aren't good enough for you any more? You do foreigners now?'" She gets up to look around outside the house, which is separated from the street only by a few bags hung on a makeshift fence. "I'm afraid for my daughter in their neighborhood. I wanted to join the [MCC] program to do something different, to give my children a better education so they can find a good job. Tell my story; use my name. I don't want other vulnerable young girls to fall into the same trap. Being a sex worker is not a solution; nobody respects us; we have no dignity in anyone's eyes."

A few minutes' walk from Shilpi's house, in a small workshop, I find another group of young women, all dressed in blue. "These are the first to have joined the program and finished their training. The first semester is devoted to personal training," says Bita, the community worker. The women are at work mixing palm and coconut oils with the other ingredients. On small drying shelves are piles of soaps, labelled by fragrance - neem, ginger or lavender. Fatima, barely 18, has a face like an angel. "I was 15 when I was raped by my cousin. My mother threw me out of the house. I left for Dhaka where I was assaulted again. When I left back to Mymensingh, I began working in the sex trade because I was furious with myself. I had lost everything." Bita notes that Fatima spent a year in Mymensingh's red light district before joining the MCC program and that she is now one of their expert soap-makers.

Assisted by two colleagues, Fatima picks up a stamp and a cube of wax. The wax is melted over hot coals and placed on a bar of soap; the seal, depicting a fingerprint, is then pressed into it. "A fingerprint is a feature that God gives each person; we use it to emphasize the unique identity of those who make our products," explains Austin, the American designer responsible for marketing. "This symbol is also tied in with the brand name of our soaps - Sacred Mark - which brings to mind the words of a famous poem by Tagore: 'O let me wear secretly (...) the sacred mark impressed by Your own hand.'"

The writings of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), a Nobel-prize winning author born in pre-partition India, not only defined the traits of Indian and Bangladeshi society (notably in their national anthems) but also speak to the fates of the craftswomen of Mymensingh. Since the new life they're building with their hands is a resurrection naturally preceded by death, their affinity for these other fateful words is immediately understandable: "Let me drown, let me die!" Death is not to be feared for "(...) the lake of this resurrection (...) knows no depths."

"I'll never forget the day we celebrated our new life. It was a Tuesday, the ninth of June. We cut a big cake and were given beautiful blue saris," recalls Fatima, her eyes shining. "My anger was gone. I was able to trade it in for something happy," she concludes.

As I write these words, I've learned that Fatima got married in the summer and is working at Sacred Mark. For her part, Shilpi continues her training as an artisan. Both are living this second chance to the fullest and now walk a path paved with dignity.

Sacred Mark soap bars are fairly purchased by Ten Thousand Villages and sold in North America.

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