I was terrified at how fast the needle in the machine moved. It pulled the fabric forward so aggressively and left its marks so permanently. I wasn’t sure I could handle the machine, I wasn’t sure I was ready. … but as I looked at that fabric, it had become something new, something useful, something beautiful, I knew it was my way out.
Years before at age 13, I was given in marriage to an older man and soon following that gave birth to a son. My baby needed so much, and my husband demanded even more. I knew very little about this adult world that I had been pulled into. And he soon grew tired of me and my son and returned us to our village. The whispers and stares were heavy with shame and our future was bleak with poverty. So when two women of the village approached me about work in the city, I readily accepted. Within the week I found myself sold into a brothel, in a city I had never been, forced to do things no one would ever choose.
As I sat at the sewing machine looking at the beauty of the fabric, a decade worth of scars covered my arms. I ran my fingers across the oddly colored skin that healed over cuts and pock-marked cigarette burns. My phone buzzed. A customer. I left the machine. I rushed back. What was I thinking? There is no escape for someone like me. That night in the brothel I swore off hope as a cruel lie.
But over the next few weeks, the people with the machine continued to pursue me, kindly, gently, wanting something for me not from me. They shared about a future outside the brothels where my children could be safe and get a good education. Where I would learn employable skills and have financial stability. I wanted that. I wanted that so badly. But what if I’m caught? What might happen to me? To my kids? My heart was racing.
Yet on a morning in August, when everyone was asleep in the brothels Aruna helped me make it out of that place, back to the beautiful fabric, and into freedom… and I have never looked back. It was difficult at first. I had never been to school, so I feared I couldn’t learn. But I did. And now I’ve mastered the machine. I enjoy the way it hums as I make beautiful designs. I feared they’d tire of me and send me back, but they didn’t. The truth is, I feel so loved, so cared for, and so valued here. They have become my family and I belong here.
Suman’s* story is more common than one might think. The International Labor Organization research shows that millions of girls are given as child brides, most often against their will. Within such cultures, if they do not remain as a devoted child bride even if rejected by an abusive husband, they will be rejected by immediate family and the surrounding neighbors for bringing shame to the community. With no employable skills, very limited education, and a cultural bias against them, young girls in this situation are highly vulnerable to human trafficking.
When trafficked, especially for sex, they believe there is no advocate to fight on their behalf. Aruna steps in to change that. Aruna, which means Bright Morning Sun in Hindi, represents a new chapter in the lives of these incredibly brave women. Aruna is an Athleisure lifestyle brand creating lifelong freedom for victims of sex trafficking through employment marked by holistic care. In short, Aruna frees, employs, and empowers. This is accomplished through hosting Aruna events across the US with thousands involved to raise awareness of sex trafficking as well as funds to bring freedom. Those funds are primarily used in Aruna’s Training Centers in the heart of the brothel systems in India to free women through Trauma-Focused cognitive behavioral therapy and financially incentivized Skill & Trade development. Once freed, a woman has the opportunity to step into Aruna’s Transitional Housing and Freedom Business. In the Freedom Business she earns a living wage, retirement savings, access to healthcare and ongoing trauma informed counseling in a community of others who have overcome. The Freedom Business produces Ahtleisure bags and accessories that are marketed in the US to the Aruna event participants as well as the open market through a direct to customer marketing strategy and select retailers. Aruna leverages this model to create employment opportunities in the US for those freed from sex trafficking domestically as well. Through this model Aruna envisions a day when every young women is free to choose her own adventure.
Photographs by Alison Wright Photography