A decade ago today (31 December) I walked into a building, in Kolkata, India, that started my very close association with freedom and the fight against the evil business of modern slavery. Entering this building for the first time with the previous owner still residing in the accommodation wing; the clutter of a previous business—an ice cream factory—clogging up the ground floor; and the industrious noises of forty-five women sewing jute fabric into bags to fulfil orders for clients around the world, I was introduced to a business with a difference, a freedom enterprise called Freeset.
The forty-five women energetically pumping out export quality products were former slaves in the notorious sex industry in Kolkata until they were offered freedom. They weren’t saved or rescued; rather they were offered, with dignity, the opportunity to walk away from the line as a sex slave and into a life of freedom. Forty-five women out of ten thousand chose freedom over slavery.
In my journal back in 2004 I write, “Today we went to Freeset… it’s the one thing that’s got me really emotional so far.” I had previously travelled around Asia and had seen poverty up close and personal in places like Manila and Phnom Penh, but I’ve not been as moved as I was when I saw the freedom that was expressed in the lives of those forty-five women. The group I was with spent several days at Freeset working at converting an ice cream factory into a manufacturing business, so two hundred women could enjoy a life of freedom versus a life of slavery.
I’ve been to Kolkata countless times since and each time I go I am reminded afresh what slavery and freedom looks like. Freeset were not the only organisations I saw in Kolkata offering freedom to the enslaved, but it was the first place I observed the amazing transformation freedom gives to someone who was sold or stolen as a child, trafficked from Bangladesh or Nepal or another part of India, and sold again into a red-light district that serviced twenty-thousand men every day. It’s only in recent months that I have admitted, to myself and others, the freedom Freeset offers to the enslaved women of Sonagachi and surrounding areas has carved such an imprint on my life that I am changed forever.
I didn’t get to walk through the lanes where the Freeset women lived back then, but I have been through them several times since. Two things strike me every time I walk through Sonagachi. Firstly, while the women who now work for Freeset are free from the enslavement of the sex trade lines, they still live in the same lanes. I recall sitting in the home—a room—of a Freeset woman in July 2013 with Kerry, friend and co-founder of Freeset with his wife Annie, and Gary, a friend who travelled with me to India. We were acknowledging the ‘leave the line but stay in the lane’ philosophy of Freeset because the room we were sitting in was ‘closed’ for business. When you wander through the lanes in the evening after Freeset has closed for the day, you spot Freeset employees scattered throughout the area with beaming smiles of freedom in the midst of the evil environment of the slavery the sex trade brings. This contrast of slavery and freedom has shaped me over the years and it probably isn’t a surprise to many that I find myself leading an organisation solely committed to seeing the end of slavery in our world.
The second thing that strikes me is the enormity of the task ahead. Walking through lanes where 10,000 women stand and are forced to sell their flesh to 20,000 men each and every day is a massive cesspit of ugliness, depravity and sadness. How could this possibly change? Kerry and Annie talk about a takeover—slowly and deliberately closing every room in Sonagachi for business through economic, social, physical, psychological and spiritual liberation by offering alternative employment and as importantly, relationship; community. What makes Freeset, and others like them, unique is that they bring liberation by living among the enslaved. They develop a kindred relationship with the community. When you walk through the lanes with the people of Freeset—both foreign and national—you can physically observe the relationships they are developing with every person they get to talk with. It takes time, and it is often filled with disappointment and sorrow, but rather than seeing the size of the problem as too big, they see the next person they meet as someone to offer freedom. Start with one, and then two. Soon you reach forty-five and then two hundred, and well, you get the idea from there.
As I sit reflecting on a decade where I have observed the bright light of freedom within the repugnant darkness of slavery, and introduced the same to scores of others, I feel I am just concluding ten years of apprenticeship in readiness for the rest of my life in joining others in the fight for a slave free world. My apprenticeship pathway has been: firstly, leading the organisation that Freeset was birthed out from for over eight years; secondly, spending six months studying deeply the global issue of modern slavery; thirdly, launching a charitable organisation in 2013; and finally, exploding onto the anti-slavery scene in NZ during 2014 with a team of dedicated abolitionists. It has been an amazing ride so far, and I feel ready and equipped to launch into the next decade of work that will see NZ gain a clear understanding of the slavery problem in this country, and extend our reach as an organisation globally.
I recently watched again the move Lincoln, a movie that sits firmly in my DVD collection along side the William Wilberforce story Amazing Grace, and the self-titled movie Mother Teresa. In a quiet scene Lincoln is reflecting with two young men in an empty telegraph cipher office, before sending a telegram to General Ulysses S. Grant. He recalls an earlier learning about Greek mathematician, Euclid of Alexandria (circa 325-265BC) and his first common notion: “things equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.” In probably one of the most powerful lines in the movie Lincoln declares, “It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That’s the origin, isn’t it? That’s balance, that’s fairness, that’s justice.”
Today I listened to part of the last Sunday sermon delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. before he was killed. He said:
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
At Stand Against Slavery we gather around a common belief that all humans were made in the image of the creator God. It follows then, that every human has certain unalienable rights that should never be contravened. Among those rights, is the right to be free!
We must begin with equality and we must do everything we can to fight for that equality so that we might survive, together. King’s sermon, from which the quote above was taken, was entitled, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. We are in a great freedom revolution and we must all remain awake.
I look forward to 2015 and beyond, taking with me a decade of experience and learning, and contributing my thread into our garment of destiny and one day know that total freedom will come to our world.
How about you? Are you ready? Will you join the fight?
Happy New Year, Peter.
 O’Connor J J, E F Robertson, 2005. Euclid’s Definitions. University of St Andrews, Scotland. http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/HistTopics/Euclid_definitions.html (accessed 31 December 2014).
 Spielberg, Steven. 2012. Lincoln. Movie, Biography, Drama, History.
 King, Martin Luther Jr. 1968. Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. Sermon, National Cathedral, Washington, DC. March 31. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_remaining_awake_through_a_great_revolution/ (accessed 31 December 2014).