The business of freedom

woman sewing-Edit

Upon walking into our young adults service on Sunday night I was greeted by the Indian flag. Everywhere. On every banner hanger and every notice board. Photos of India, the people and the landscape, looped on the main screen at the front of the church. It was Indian night and Church of the Saviour and we don’t do things by halves.

But this wasn’t your tyical cultural night filled with food, music, language and dancing; tonight we were watching the 2004 documentary about Freeset and skyping the man who made the documentary and is now the general manager, Karl Weaich.

The documentary “Calcutta Hilton” follows Evie Ashton as she visits Sonagacchi, the largest and most infamous sex district in Kolkatta (formally known as Calcutta) and the home of Freeset. Freeset was founded in 1999 by New Zealanders Kerry and Annie Hilton, who moved to India to help the poor and found themselves in the middle of the red light district. Wanting to go beyond just “charity”, the Hiltons created a viable business, teaching the women to read and write along with manufacturing and business skills. Freeset opened in 2001, with twenty women brave enough to trust a few strange foreigners and leave the sex trade behind.

12 years later, Freeset exports cutom bags, stock bags and T-shirts all around the globe, with around 1000 bags being produced a day by 180 women employed full time. These women are paid twice the going rate for an equivalent job along with health insurance and a pension plan included in their employment packages.


While there is this incredible message of hope throughout the “Calcutta Hilton” documentary, and the inspiring work that Freeset do everyday for these women, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed and heart broken. There are still thousands of women who work the streets on Sonagacchi every single day, and around the world, because they have no choice. In fact we hear about human traffiking, extreme poverty and disease all the time. How are we as christians, or even just people in the developed world, even meant to scratch the surface of such a massive, global issue?

Two years ago, I went on a mission trip to Moshi in Tanzania and saw this extreme poverty for myself. Ever since, I have been struggling with the grand scale of poverty in our world today where even to start. However, on Sunday I was struck by the very real and honest, yet very hopeful message behind the documentary. After watching it, we given the opportunity to write down any questions we had and then Karl was skyped into the service. His passion, vision and drive was incredible and I realised while I felt hopeless and useless when it came to global poverty, others didn’t. Yes, extreme poverty, human traffiking and other human rights issues occur on a massive global scale, but so did women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement. With passionate and driven people such as Karl at the helm, it makes erradicating global poverty very much a possibility. And besides, nothing is impossible with God right?

So whether you do the 40 Hour Famine, Live Below The Line, buy a Freeset bag or move to Kolkatta, every little bit really does help.

To find out more information about Freeset or get involved, visit

by Eleanor Calder (Church of the Saviour, Blockhouse Bay). Images via Freeset


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