At least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into modern-day slavery, encompassing sexual servitude as well as forced labor.
How they end up there can be jaw-dropping from a limited Western perspective, but for every young woman who is coerced, kidnapped, sold by a family member or turned to the lifestyle out of sheer desperation to survive, there are scores of others with the same story. In many of these cultures, females are openly devalued simply for their gender and are given far fewer educational opportunities compared to men, weighing young girls down with an insurmountable handicap when they try to end the cycle and strike out on their own.
Empowering the women and children who make up these staggering statistics and offering them independence and agency is the mission at the heart and soul of Made for Freedom, a St. Louis-based online retail and wholesale effort. It sells apparel and accessories designed and handmade by women who are either survivors of exploitation or marginalized (at risk of exploitation) in India, Ghana, Haiti, Thailand, Nepal and China. Through Made for Freedom, nearly 150 women are given, for the first time in their lives, dignified partial employment in a safe environment.
Made for Freedom founder and chief executive officer Dawn Manske got her first glimpse into this subculture during a decade of living and working in Beijing, China. She became good friends with a woman who had started a city school for street children who had moved from the rural countryside to find jobs, only to end up being exploited. “I knew those kids; I knew their stories, and it was heartbreaking,” Manske says, adding in passing that January marks National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
Manske moved back to St. Louis in 2006, and two years later, she attended a luncheon put on by the International Justice Mission at Covenant Theological Seminary, where they showed an undercover documentary of young girls forced into prostitution in Cambodia, and her stomach turned. “There’s this tension, and sometimes it just gets you between what is and what ought to be,” she says. “When that hits you and you want to see what’s right, you’re kind of restless until you can figure out how to do something.”
This restlessness became Manske’s one singular focus. “I didn’t know how I could do anything, but I knew something needed to be done,” she says. A windfall of subsequent events laid the foundation to Made for Freedom, which Manske attests to be divinely appointed.
On a trip to Columbia, Missouri, Manske visited Mustard Seed, a fair-trade boutique that carries many product lines driven by social enterprise – companies that maximize social impact with their profits rather than profiting for external shareholders. A couple of months later, her Beijing friend gifted her a set of jewelry made by women rescued from sex trafficking in China. Another friend, knowing Manske’s affinity for the fisherman-style pants she had picked up in Thailand years prior, got her several more pairs of the breezy, wide-leg pants.
Immediately, the pants got a lot of attention. Manske was stopped, once even followed through a parking lot, by strangers asking about them. Her first thought was to start a business selling fisherman pants. But with the idea of social enterprise in her head and the weight of the millions of women and children suffering in the invisible prisons of sex trafficking, she thought, “What if these pants could be the foundation of a business that could help people?”
Through a combination of online crowdfunding, Kiva Zip loans for small businesses, a Social Enterprise & Innovation Competition (SEIC) grant and an Arch Grant through the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis, Manske was able to launch Made for Freedom with a redesigned fisherman-style pant she named the CREABELI pant, which stands for “CREate A BEautiful LIfe.”
Her first center for design and sewing was in Thailand, and the mission of her company held true to its first product’s name – before she knew it, she received an email that the production center was closing because the girls working there were receiving amazing opportunities to further their education or start careers. Last January, Manske traveled to eight cities throughout India, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal and China and connected with 10 different sewing centers to develop new relationships and broaden her product line.
In addition to the CREABELI pant, Made for Freedom now carries handmade bags, T-shirts, scarves and a new line of professional purses. And, in a serendipitous twist, Manske also has connected with a center of rescued women in China who make jewelry – the very same center that made a jewelry set she received as a wedding gift.
Made for Freedom also has been a participant in the annual Fashion Revolution international event, which commemorates the anniversary of the collapsed Bangladeshi sweatshop that killed more than 1,000 people in 2013. Made for Freedom hosted a fashion show at last year’s event, held in April, with vendors from around St. Louis that promote fair and ethical production of goods and clothing.
The business does more than simply give back: Made for Freedom offers dignified employment at a decent wage for these women, giving 20 percent of its net profits back to the women who provide its goods, which assists in life skills and job training.
“Made for Freedom is trying to find the people who are on the verge or have already been in the darkness of this world, and give them dignified employment,” Manske says. A chance to create a beautiful life.
6059 Clemens Ave., St. Louis | 314-722-6070 | madeforfreedom.com