This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
What does the concept of dignity mean for a woman who spent most of her life being sold?
According to a 2017 study, there are 4.8 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide, with women and girls making up 99% of that number.
It’s also a problem that hits close to home, as most reported cases of trafficking occur in developed countries. In Texas alone, 79,000 children and young adults are being exploited at any given time, the University of Texas estimates.
Young women drawn into sex trafficking often have histories of mistreatment or neglect from their earliest recollections, making the initial relationship with their traffickers seem stable in comparison – but the following manipulation entraps them in a tangle of shame and related criminal associations.
Stories of Exploitation
“The nature of trafficking is that you’re dealing with people who commit crimes. Traffickers are typically not just exploiting women and girls; they’re also engaging in lots of other illegal activity,” explains Melissa Ice, founder of The Net, a Fort Worth-based nonprofit working with women victims of sexual exploitation.
“If you have a woman who’s in the context of a relationship with her trafficker, then she’s naturally going to get mixed up in some of those other activities as well. Oftentimes, women take the fall for their traffickers, like going to jail, or even prison, for crimes they didn’t commit – because they had such a significant trauma bond with their trafficker, that they felt responsible for what happened.”
The Net started in a Fort Worth church, where Melissa was charged with developing an outreach program to “engage populations of people who were in poverty.” She says activities like English classes for refugees and weekly breakfasts led them to “stumble organically” on the issue of sex trafficking and women living on the street without recourse.
“We started building relationships with those women, and learned more about their stories, their backgrounds, their trauma,” she says. “Some of them were being incarcerated for their exploitation, and when we didn’t hear from them, we would just go visit them.”
The Problem with Labels
While The Net has programs for all ages and genders, those jail visits were the catalyst for developing Purchased, a survivor-led support system specifically focused on helping women escape trafficking by way of emotional healing.
Besides the invaluable sense of camaraderie, women in Purchased can also access an arsenal of practical resources: everything from nutrition instruction and trauma-informed yoga, to professional development skills including typing, computer classes, as well as assistance in obtaining their GEDs and applying for college if desired.
For the first five years, women going through the Purchased program reported encouraging progress on taking back their lives – breaking addictions, rekindling family relationships, making restitution at court. But a true sense of dignity remained elusive as the women struggled to find work and the independence that comes with a paycheck.
That’s due at least in part to women being criminalized for their exploitation, explains Melissa.
“Any time you apply for anything – job, car, house, apartment – every application asks if you have a felony on your record, so for these women, that label of prostitution is just being carried around with them everywhere they go.
“Some of the women in our program have graduated from the program, they have jobs, they got their bachelor’s degree, they get their master’s degree, one is studying for her LSAT – and she’s still writing down that she has prostitution as a felony charge. That is being carried with her, even though that’s part of her past.”
Roadblocks & Course Corrections
To overcome the employment roadblock, Melissa and co-founder Sarah Bowden decided to launch a social enterprise in 2018. Through The Worthy Co, women taking part in Purchased can also log paid hours crafting clay jewelry and hand-poured soy candles.
“We felt that it was really healing and therapeutic for them to be able to have the ability to produce something out of nothing,” Melissa says.
“Candles are a great example – it’s just a bag of wax and some vessels, and then they get to create something beautiful that people want to have in their home, that makes a warm environment.” The same goes for jewelry: “You’re essentially taking a lump of clay, and turning it into something that makes women feel beautiful – and it also simultaneously empowers the woman who’s making it.”
As they progress through the program, some women opt to move away from production and learn to handle shipping and fulfillment duties as well, gaining a set of transferable skills which helps to increase their eligibility for future careers. So far, 50% of former Worthy Co employees have made the transition to other employment – nearly twice the usual success rate for trafficking victims, according to data from the National Survivor Network.
Take “Mary,” a survivor whose experience with sexual exploitation reaches back as far as 13, when she was trafficked by a woman she trusted. Despite repeated incarceration, she won her battle with drug addiction and began focusing on social autonomy and financial independence. After two years working at The Worthy Co, she transitioned last summer to a career in sales with a roofing company.
With constructive feedback from The Worthy Co’s staff, Mary learned to manage her time and communicate effectively with her manager, mastering soft skills that grew her confidence and set her up for success.
“Coming out of jail and having The Net surrounding me, it made a whole world of difference,” she says.
Helping women escape a life of exploitation and abuse is an accomplishment in itself, but The Worthy Co goes several steps further to offer emotional healing, advocacy, and friendship.
Survivors gain the skills and strength to “course correct” their own paths and build lives they can be proud of – and isn’t that what dignity is all about?
Spend for good: “Handmade by Survivors” – that’s the promise of The Worthy Co online shop. In addition to their famous clay earrings, you’ll find a wide variety of bracelets, accessories, and hand-poured candles. Prices start at just $15, and 100% of every purchase helps to employ and empower trafficked women.
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