ANCHAL /ON-CHAL/ NOUN
(1). The decorative edge of a sari used to provide comfort and protect to loved ones. (2). A Shelter.
I first learned about Anchal Project a few years ago from a fellow social good blogger who lives in Louisville, Kentucky where Anchal Project is based. After looking at their beautiful website and learning about their philanthropic model, I bought my first scarf and fell in love with the beauty and exquisiteness of their unique products and the story behind each scarf. I have been promoting their products on my Gifts that Give Back page for years and finally this week I had the opportunity to speak with co-founder and CEO Colleen Clines about the inspiration behind Anchal Project and what she has done to help women escape poverty and prostitution in India. Little did I know, her own personal story was equally as inspiring and powerful as her work heading Anchal Project. Here is the story.
Colleen has always been creative and growing up loved working with different forms of art. As a young woman, she studied landscape architecture in Kentucky and at the Rhode Island School of Design where she took a graduate class that would change her life.
During the class, “Design through Development“, the students traveled to India to learn about how design could be used as a catalyst to pull people out of poverty. The class met with local leader, Urmi Basu of the New Light Foundation and it was there in the narrow alleyways of the Kalighat red light district, Urmi shared the extreme oppression women faced from prostitution and the tangible void in economic alternatives available to this marginalized community.
It was a powerful experience for Colleen and her classmates which inspired them to act. They learned that over 10 million women in India work in the commercial sex trade and for many of these women, they have no alternative way to survive due to lack of education, poverty and gender inequality. Women and girls remain trapped in a vicious cycle of prostitution and poverty with no way to escape or provide for their family. It opened Colleen’s heart to the injustice in the world and made her empowered to do something about it.
“We felt compelled to take the project beyond the classroom with the conviction that our design training in collaboration with local leadership could address seemingly intractable social and environmental systems. The women we met became our sisters, sisters we had to fight for.” – Colleen Clines, Co-Founder & CEO
Although they were still students in their early twenties, Colleen and three other classmates who traveled with her to India began to think of ways that they could help the women they met at New Light. Shortly following the class trip to India, the four classmates raised $400 by selling handmade notebooks and notecards. These humble beginnings facilitated the purchase of a sewing machine, sewing instruction, materials, and a stipend for the artisans and it was the start of Anchal Project.
“Working as a prostitute is the most humiliating and exploitative profession in the world. I died every day when I had to sustain that way. Now with Anchal I feel a new respect for myself.” – Anchal artisan.
At only 23 years old when the first stages of Anchal began, Colleen says one of the biggest challenges was turning the idea into a non-profit. Despite being incredibly artistic and creative, Colleen had little experience in business management, running a non-profit, textiles and working internationally. Furthermore she had no track record so it took time to build Anchal into what it is today. However, with perseverance, dedication and a will to create positive, sustainable change Colleen and her partners succeeded in creating something amazing and in 2010, Anchal officially received 501(c)3 non-profit status in the United States and expanded the project by partnering with a second NGO, Vatsalya, in Ajmer, India.
Only something happened that would significantly jeopardize the future of Anchal and Colleen’s life. In 2011, the unexpected, devastating news arrived. At 26 years old, Colleen was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Colleen’s inspiring words discuss how difficult it was for her to get Anchal off the ground and running while she battled life-threatening cancer:
Despite the tremendous pain and isolation, I was reminded of the artisans in India and their daily battle for survival. I knew they were counting on me. I knew that I had to overcome my personal challenges in order to end this exploitation collectively. Cancer in and of itself does not give you a badge of courage, but cancer does change your perspective on life completely. Overcoming this life threatening experience not only strengthened my empathy, but also taught me perseverance.
Today, Colleen has been in remission for almost 4 years and incredibly grateful for every moment. Her work continues and her passion to help these amazing women transform their lives perseveres.
Today, Anchal has trained and employed over 150 women and is changing these women and their children’s lives forever by providing skills and design training, full-time sustainable employment, educational workshops, health services, market access and a safe community to learn and work.
Watch this powerful short clip about the issues of sex trade in India for women and girls and how it negatively impacts them.
I ended my call in tears, amazed at the compassion and selflessness of this young woman. How despite her own fight for her life, she continued to help the women of Anchal make a better life for themselves. What a gift Colleen has given to these women and their families.
In case you want to learn more, here is some information about the mission and goals of Anchal Project:
What they do:
Anchal provides alternative careers in textiles to commercial sex workers in India by merging design, business and education and by partnering with established Non-Government Organizations [NGOS] that serve exploited women with interest in offering income-generating programs to their members. The NGO provides artisan recruitment, skills training, project management, mentorship and health resources while Anchal provides creative storytelling, design guiding, seed funding, market access and sales, and program innovation.
How it works:
Structured as a non-profit social enterprise, Anchal is held to high standards of transparency and impact combined with intentions of self-sufficiency through product sales. Anchal’s organization is based on collaboration and innovative design solutions.
Anchal’s holistic program is designed to address the diverse needs of each woman and equip them with the tools needed to sustain employment as an Anchal artisan and beyond. By offering alternatives to dangerous and exploitive work, Anchal helps women rediscover their dignity, independence and creativity in a financially rewarding way. The program offers women design and skills training, full-time employment, educational workshops, health services, a supportive community and access to an international marketplace.
Anchal teaches women the traditional Indian technique of Kantha – textiles created from layers of vintage saris, held together by a simple running stitch. Kantha is used to create gorgeous scarves, blankets and pillows that are sold to provide income to support the women in education, health and mentorship programs. What is even more amazing is that the textiles are made using natural dyes, organic fibers and recycled materials (from old saris) meaning the products are helping offset the damage to people and our planet.