Couple trade in freedom

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009
HAYDEN DONNELL/North Shore Times
HELPING HAND: Kerry and Annie Hilton have helped thousands of women out of prostitution in Calcutta.

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Kerry and Annie Hilton are in the freedom business.

The former Albany couple have saved dozens of women from a life of prostitution in Calcutta’s red light district.

They have given each a job and hope for the future through their company Freeset.

"It’s a business of freedom taking on a business of slavery," says Mr Hilton.

"We want to bring freedom in a way that means something."

The seeds of Freeset were planted eight years ago when Mr Hilton started noticing the plight of Auckland’s poor.

Every weekend he left his family’s Albany cottage to talk to the homeless in places like Karangahape Rd and Otara.

He learned poverty is mainly about a lack of choice rather than a lack of money.

"It was my journey of discovery. I had to understand what poverty is all about," he says.

He soon latched on to the idea of a business transforming poverty-stricken communities after reading an article on Calcutta.

With little besides a desire to help the poor, the Hiltons set off for the city’s Sonagacchi district.

It wasn’t until they took an evening stroll that they realised they were in one of the biggest red light districts in India.

"It was a meat market," says Kerry.

"Women were lined up shoulder to shoulder along the road.

"I would swing between compassion for the girls and anger at the men. I’d come home some days and just weep on Annie’s lap."

Freeing girls from the sex trade, which nearly all were forced into, has consumed the couple’s life ever since.

In 2001, they bought a building and gave jobs to 20 Sonagacchi sex workers, making bags for a steady income. Women were employed based on need not ability and few had any experience.

The Hiltons were working 11 to 15-hour days, six days a week, to run the business and manage crises.

It was a difficult and emotionally turbulent time, but the couple say they never abandoned their belief in the business.

"You had crises every day," says Kerry.

"Women getting beaten and getting acid thrown on their faces. There were always medical crises.

"Still, we never gave up."

Freeset is now a successful business with 110 employees.

Bag orders come in constantly from more than 20 countries, thanks to its eco-friendly image and high-quality product.

The Hiltons are trying to gather donations to buy another larger building across the road "back home" in Sonagacchi.

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They want to one day set enough women free to make a big dent in the Sonagacchi brothel owners’ businesses.

"I dream of the day when people will walk through Sonagacchi and say: ‘You won’t believe this but this used to be a sex area’," says Annie.

Franchising Freeset worldwide is also on the cards.

"We’re looking at Afghanistan," says Kerry.

"It’s different because it’s sustainable freedom, not freedom while the funds are there.

"We’re not about rescue, we’re about transformation of the community."

- North Shore Times

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