Guest Post: Business as Freedom in South Asia

This guest post is a true privilege to share. Emily Yount studied Human and Organizational Development & Women’s and Gender Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is a Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholar and a Keegan Travelling Fellow. Over the past year, she has been traveling, researching and writing her way through Asia to better understand exploitation as it relates to poverty in developing countries. Read on as she shares some of her collected observations with us.


Guest Post by:  Emily Yount

Long have I understood trafficking to be largely a result of economic problems. I knew that poverty lies at the root of most stories of exploitation, particularly in developing countries. However, when I thought about aftercare, the images that came to mind were in-depth, long-term, and individualized counseling sessions for survivors, perhaps supplemented with some vocational skills training.

Looking back, that seems simply absurd. If this is an economic problem, why would an economic solution be the secondary priority at best? I suppose I meant well (as I’m sure groups taking this approach do as well) – my empathy for the survivors’ trauma symptoms and emotional healing overrode an objective, culturally sensitive view of the situation. As I’ve spoken to Indians and expats who have worked here for years, I have seen the lack of logic in my previous perspective. Let me explain:

The western cultures of Europe and the U.S. are, for better or worse, individualistic ones. The cultures of developing countries like India, however, are collectivistic. This means that the good of the group is valued more highly than the good of the individual. Meeting family obligations is nearly always prioritized over achieving personal fulfillment. As a result, the western model of individualized therapy cannot be effectively replicated in developing countries.

Unfortunately, this cultural factor at one point worked against the women who have now found themselves trapped in a situation of exploitation. An expectation to provide for their family drives many girls to look for jobs in large cities where their vulnerability is manipulated and misused. There is a tendency to jump from this situation to assume that providing for needs once these women and girls are rescued will solve the problem.

However, when this is the case, there is a forgotten value of the dignity of work in cultures like India’s. Really, this is, to some extent, a value of nearly every culture, but sometimes we forget this fact when in a human service mindset. The priority is providing for the immediate needs of housing, food, and emotional support. Economic opportunities fall to the backburner.

And so, I found myself considering dual values of community and work that totally revolutionized my understanding of aftercare delivery in the Indian context. From my experiences with organizations possessing years-worth of understanding in this area, I have been challenged in my own overemphasis on a western model of recovery. Through this, I have reached an important conclusion:

When adult women leave prostitution in the country of India and South Asian cultures like it – whether through rescue or personal choice – their most pressing need is a community where they can have dignified employment.

Please note that I say adult women. The needs of minor victims are completely different. In fact, they quite mirror my initial understanding of aftercare. My time in this fellowship has certainly expanded my understanding of this process for adult women in South Asia, though.

So what now?

At the crossroads of my understandings and unanswered questions, freedom businesses emerged as an exciting solution.

The important thing to understand about these entities is that they are a business in every sense of the word, but they are in business for freedom. While making a profit is certainly their primary goal, it is not for the benefit of the typical stakeholders, but for the survivors employed by these businesses. Furthermore, these business entities make many decisions on the front end of operations that would typically be unwise in the for-profit world. For example, the women hired by these groups are rarely qualified for the jobs and must be trained for months before contributing to the revenue stream. However, this model has proven to work and the retention rates are staggering because of the unique benefits of this model.

Here are just some of these benefits that result from the fascinating blend of structure:

  • Trust and acceptance within the red-light districts as these groups are not seen as an NGO or associated with law enforcement.
  • Ability to become self-sustaining based on profits from production rather than fundraising.
  • Natural formation of a supportive community as the women work together toward a common goal.
  • Opportunity for employees make use of government resources, such as health insurance, due to their official employment of these women by a for-profit corporation.
  • Possibility for collaboration and partnership between different organizations, as they are pursuing the same overall mission rather than acting as competitors in a market.

Another exciting thing about freedom businesses is the chance for people in the western world to partner in this fight in a unique way. Most of these businesses give their customers the chance to learn about the women who make the products, giving individuals a more tangible connection to those they are supporting than simply donating to a cause can bring about. Second, the ripple effect of buying a purse, scarf, or jewelry items extends far past the one-time purchase. When people ask about the product, awareness is spread and hopefully more customers are brought in.

Here is a list of the freedom businesses, working to fight or prevent sexual exploitation, that I have personally encountered in South Asia. These are not just NGO’s with a side project. These are real businesses that operate as such, in order to bring about freedom. Take a look at the stores on their websites if you’re interested in joining this fight!

Many people ask me the best way to help in this fight. I will now answer with a suggestion to bring your support as a customer these organizations that go beyond the trend of “fair trade” to operating their business as freedom.