E-commerce Site Helps Survivor Women Artisans to Earn
This three-part series raises thought-provoking questions about women artisans in the developing world who are survivors of human trafficking and other travails. These hard-working women artisans are striving to succeed—but their success depends on us. They need a market.
TO THE MARKET is as a much a platform for beautifully crafted accessories as it is one for life-changing stories. A truly unique e-commerce site that allows customers to shop by causes or countries, TO THE MARKET only features products made by survivors of human trafficking and other forms abuse, conflict, or disease. All purchases made on TO THE MARKET help support the local organizations that employ these survivors, helping the artisans achieve financial stability.
The idea of empowering survivors of human trafficking through employment first popped into founder Jane Mosbacher Morris’s mind when she was traveling through Kolkata, India, in 2013 with The McCain Institute and the International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that protects the poor from violence throughout the developing world. She had visited two social enterprises in the red-light district there that were focused on employing human trafficking survivors to produce products.
“I just loved the simplicity, but also the idea that you decide to serve a population by creating a business to employ them,” Morris recalled.
“What I loved most of all was that the survivors I interacted with had a dignity about them that I hadn’t seen as much in purely nonprofit dynamics where there’s a very clear donor and beneficiary, where there’s not as much equality in relationships. I just loved that these survivors realized that they were artisans. There was a real pride in the way that they operated. That’s really when the seed was planted that I wanted to be a part of helping encourage the employment of these very vulnerable populations as a way of serving them.”
A Different Lens
Morris had been searching for a way to empower survivors long before her trip to India. Before starting TO THE MARKET, Morris had worked five and half years in the U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism office and global women’s issues office. Her work brought her to countries where women faced significant obstacles.
“It really opened my eyes to the level of oppression and the lack of basic human rights for so many women and girls. What felt like a theme was that there was a lack of economic independence for women. Specifically, this lack of economic independence meant a lack of independence period,” she said.
Morris was especially focused on the lack of economic independence when she worked on issues of human security, such as human trafficking, sexual assault, and other forms of violence and abuse. In these kinds of exploitative dynamics, the lack of economic independence was not only a barrier to these women living a full life, but it also impeded them from leaving the exploitative situation.
“If there isn’t an opportunity for these survivors to learn a new skill set—potentially earn an income—it’s much more likely that they would be vulnerable to being re-exploited or fall back into a difficult circumstance again,” said Morris.
She also realized that for these populations, much of the focus of the international community and nonprofit community is around social service provisions such as shelter, pro bono legal assistance, and emergency housing.
“All of that is incredibly important … but what I really saw a gap in was a lack of focus on the long-term trajectory of people that were able to get out of these exploitative dynamics.”
After her trip to Kolkata, Morris spent nine months researching how organizations and co-ops around the world were forming to provide employment to different types of survivor populations, such as survivors of human trafficking, sexual assault, and domestic violence. There were also co-ops dedicated to other types of survivor populations, such as refugees, war widows, and those living with HIV, AIDS, or leprosy.
She found that there were already a fair number of these co-op organizations in operation, and that a wide variety of products were being produced with the intent of selling in Western markets. However, despite the many benefits of this model, these co-ops faced numerous challenges that prevented them from being as effective as they could be, such as issues with communication and production capacity when working with retailers.
“I really built TO THE MARKET to respond to the challenges that I heard when I was learning about this model of employing survivors. Not only around the challenges, but also to build on what was working well,” said Morris.
TO THE MARKET was built on three focus areas:
First, it is about helping the organizations employing survivors to sell their products. This is done on tothemarket.com, pop-up shops, retail partnerships, and more.
Second, it focuses on advocacy through storytelling around why the dignity of work is so transformative to survivors, and around the specific issues included in the work. This involves using the handmade products to connect supporters and customers to the survivor artisans’ stories.
Third, providing management consulting to local partners and organizations that employ the survivors working on the ground, and working with them in a variety of ways to help them run their co-ops more efficiently and effectively, providing advice on anything from trend forecasting to advice on pricing, design, and descriptions.
TO THE MARKET acts as an Etsy-like platform for the co-ops to sell their products. The co-ops are in charge of much of the backend work, such as taking photos of the product, writing descriptions, pricing, packaging, and shipping. At the same time, the website also plays the role of adviser, guiding the co-cops to become more successful and self-sufficient.
“It allows our partners to be in control of their listing and be in control of their inventory. … We really encourage them to not be dependent on us and to be pursuing multiple distribution channels to try to maximize their sales,” said Morris.
“We don’t run or operate the co-ops ourselves. We partner with existing organizations.”
TO THE MARKET currently partners with local co-op organizations in over 20 countries. The company is selective about the organizations it partners with and has a rigorous application process.
As of last month, TO THE MARKET has sold over 1,700 products made by survivors.
“We’re at a time where consumers increasingly want to know who made their products,” said Morris.
At TO THE MARKET, the stories of the survivor artisans who made the products are readily available, under the section of the website called “Stories.”
One survivor artisan, whose name and location has been concealed for her safety, tells the story of how she was forced to work in a brothel for money after she ran away from an abusive step-father.
After years of abuse, she was finally able to escape and join the Starfish Project, an organization that employs women who have been exploited in East Asia. By making and distributing jewelry, the women are able to earn an income. At the same time, they are provided counseling, vocational training, language acquisition, family education grants, health care access, and housing. Today, she is the assistant to the creative director at the project, working on editing photos and designing jewelry.
“These are only two of the opportunities I know I would have never had otherwise, and it has given me the freedom to hope and dream,” she writes on the TO THE MARKET blog. “Being at Starfish Project has taught me all aspects of running a business, which is incredibly empowering. … I can honestly say that my life has been completely transformed.”
Learn more about how TO THE MARKET is empowering survivors at www.tothemarket.com. You can also join their journey @LetGoTTM (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and @TOTHEMARKET (Pinterest, Google+, Youtube).