On the second floor of a brightly painted apartment building in the City, seven women shuffle up the stairs and shed their sandals in a scattered row outside a carved wooden door, entering the flat in a subdued flurry of nervousness and excitement.
By 8:00 a.m. they’ve arranged themselves on the sofa and chairs in a circle of bright colors – the stunning reds, yellows and blues of gracefully wrapped saris. There’s a glint of bracelets, nose rings, and a flash of smiles that greet my “Good morning.”
This is the first week of the Serge Freedom Bakery’s* first ever training for our new bakers – women who were once employed in one of the city’s red light districts.
For five Serge staff, including myself, this week has been something we’ve been painstakingly working toward for a long time.
For our team leader and his family, it is a dream three years in the making, the beginning of an ambitious and daring “business for transformation” venture.
For the seven women in the room, this is the first week of a life-changing journey out of the bondage of the South Asian sex trade and into freedom.
Just down the street is one of the most notorious red light districts in the world where more than 10,000 women and children are trapped in the sex trade. Until this week, the seven smiling faces in this room were among those numbers.
One of the biggest challenges faced by these women is the cultural stigma attached to the sex trade, and the lack of opportunity that comes with it.
No matter how a woman started working on the lines, whether sold to a brothel by her parents or husband, trafficked in from over the border, or simply decided to enter the trade due to desperate poverty and a need to feed children, once in the trade the women are seen as tainted.
Even if they are able and want to leave the trade, no one will give them a job. There is no way out.
“Freedom businesses” have risen as a tremendously effective way of overcoming the injustice of modern day sex slavery.
By providing jobs, training, and education to women in the red light districts, freedom businesses have the potential to not only transform the lives of the women being employed, but to start a virtuous cycle in the lives of their families and their children’s futures.
The Freedom Bakery is being built with this purpose in mind —
We want to empower the women with physical and economic freedom, and also show them the way to spiritual freedom.
Over the next three months, these brave women will not only receive vocational training to become bakers at the Freedom Bakery, they will also receive instruction in math, English language, hygiene, first aid, and personal finance.
Every day will begin with a devotion, Bible story, or songs, and the women will participate in daily group therapy sessions, slowly working through the trauma they have experienced in the world of human trafficking and prostitution.
After months of countless conversations and recruiting on the streets, plus two stages of pre-training interviews, we still had no real idea of how many women would show up.
On the first morning, five women came. On the second, one woman, Singh, had brought along her friend Shira to join us. By day three, we were up to seven.
On the very first day of class, the women learn to write their names. Even though the women are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, this is the first time anyone has ever showed them how to leave their unique mark on the world.
“Each month,” I tell them, “you will sign your name in English to receive your paycheck.” They nod and concentrate on forming the letters.
Their education and empowerment is connected to their freedom.
This is called “capacity building”.
With a basic grasp of English, the women will not only be able to function more smoothly in the kitchen with expats, they will also be equipped will a valuable skill that will set them apart for any job they might pursue in the future.
While they learn English, each of us is desperately working to improve our proficiency in their local language. As language skills improve on both sides, we hope that the clarity and depth of our conversations will improve as well.
Later, I set baking tools and ingredients on the kitchen table and stage a tactile vocabulary session. They pick up the items and ask questions. Soon we have an enthusiastic question and answer dialogue bouncing back and forth.
“What is this?” I ask. “Rolling pin,” they chorus back. “What is this?” “Espatula,” says Joni brightly (Read: spatula). “Espatula is my favorite.”
Though I had been nervous about attempting to teach English, the women’s enthusiasm and sheer enjoyment of the process sets my mind at ease. At the end of the scheduled session I have to try four times to end class.
They’re all still hovering over the table, picking up icing sugar, forks, cinnamon, and measuring cups, asking questions and quizzing each other.
As they group finally move into the next classroom for the day’s hygiene lesson on hand washing I can still hear, “Meexing bowl. Meexing bowl,” repeated over and over again.
The new English words wind in and out with the rise and fall of the women’s voices, a pleasant chatter and hum that fills the house every morning.
Cinnamon, cha, smog and mustard oil linger in the air and whirl among the sounds.
Just before plunging in to teach her lesson Sierra, our head baker, looks over at me and grins. “I just love this,” she says.
* the bakery’s name and author’s identity has been changed/kept anonymous for security reasons