We were welcomed to Nepal by Himalayan peaks blanketed in clouds. The journey here was longer than we planned, with a canceled flight that resulted in an unexpected night in Chengdu, China and a Vespa injury that left Blythe a bit beaten and bruised (Thank goodness for no broken bones!). The first 24 hours loosened our preconceived ideas of how the trip would go, as we carted Blythe in a wheelchair through the Chengdu airport to figure out how to rebook our canceled flight to Kathmandu. All we could do was laugh in our sleep-deprived hysteria as we examined our interesting circumstances. Giving up control is just one of the many disguised blessings that travel brings, isn’t it?
Hopping into our taxi in Kathmandu, our driver asks us what we’ve come for — “maybe to hike, or see the monkey temple.” We see his confusion as we tell him, “We’re here to visit a sewing center.”
Four years ago, Blythe Hill received an email from Katie Martinez, founder of Elegantees, inviting Dressember into what would become a powerful social partnership. Katie explained to Blythe the mission of Elegantees — to restore overcomers of trafficking through job creation at their sewing center in Nepal. She offered to create 31 dresses to be worn the entire month of December. Blythe’s answer was a resounding ‘YES, but let’s just start with one dress’. Since then, the style challenge has grown and evolved, creating an increased demand for ethically made dresses, and thus employment opportunities for more girls.
Before arriving in Nepal, we read the 2008 novel Sold by Patricia McCormick—a fictional story relaying the very real threat that girls in rural Nepal experience. The book follows the journey of Lakshmi, who believes she is being taken to India to work as a handmaid to provide needed income for her family, only to find out when she reaches her destination in India that she has entered the sex trade with little hope of escape. This was a sobering read, as we would soon learn the truth that lies within the lines of this fictional story. We later learned how the earthquake in 2015 has exacerbated this problem, leaving families without shelter and desperate for the financial provision that daughters can bring through work in India. The sad reality, we found out, is that the pilgrimage to India is often one that preys on the vulnerability of girls in poor, rural communities. It's estimated that over 12,000 girls are trafficked from Nepal to India each year.
“The girls return to their communities as leaders.”
Elegantees partners with Kingdom Investment Nepal (KIN), an organization that rescues girls from brothels in India and returns them to a safe house in Nepal. KIN also works to rescue girls before they cross the border into India under false pretenses of employment opportunities. Inside the safe house, they have the opportunity to learn trades and vocational skills of their choice that they can bring back to their local communities. To KIN's surprise, many of the girls who are rescued ask to serve as counselors at the border to encourage other girls like them not to enter India. In the words of the staff, “the girls return to their communities as leaders.” We were amazed to hear about the heart behind KIN to not only rescue girls but to set up counseling stations at the border to prevent trafficking before it starts and arrest the agents attempting to bring them into the country— an initiative that has allowed them to protect over 20,000 women.
Greeted with necklaces of marigold, we entered the sewing center and watched the magic begin. Swatches of vibrant fabric with shelves of matching thread, birds sang as they passed through the nearby mango tree, beams of sunlight pierced through the small field of corn gracing the courtyard, planes overhead occasionally muffled our conversations. Sixteen girls taking ownership of their different areas — feeling less like a supply chain and more like a dance. We watched in awe as the fabric was carefully cut, and the thread was wound. As the machines hummed, we sat down with the girls, exchanging shy smiles and laughter, navigating a language barrier but a shared understanding.
“We treat these girls like they are our daughters, like they are our sisters.”
Before we arrived, we were told by the staff, “We treat these girls like they are our daughters, like they are our sisters.” This was evident during the entirety of our time, as we observed the care placed on the staff and the girls, the meals shared, and the bond formed as they help one another. It was an honor that they would share that space and time with us.
On the first day, we had the honor of celebrating Rina’s* birthday. We saw firsthand the celebration and the joy that someone experiences who have hope for a new year of life. We saw her loved and surrounded like a daughter, like a sister.
The connections and relationships we form hold the power to change the lens that we see the world through. Our time in the sewing center brought a reinforced importance to asking the question, “Who made my clothes?” The fashion industry does not have to breed exploitation, but we must stop the demand for it.
Currently, there are over 500 women on a waitlist to work at the sewing center in Kathmandu. KIN and Elegantees have a shared desire to create a space to hire at least 200 women. We asked a leader on their team what their vision was for 2019 — “5 more girls,” she said. We can’t wait for the day when we see this dream realized and continue to stay committed to our partnership, knowing that the purchases of our dress collection have the power to get them one step closer to their goal of empowerment and restoration.
Stay tuned for the launch of our 2018 Dressember Dress Collection in September!
Dressember's Communications Manager
*name has been changed for confidentiality purposes
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