Offering ‘Shelter’ to Victims of Sex Trade: The Anchal Project Empowers Women

Embroidery crafts for sale at such retailers as West Elm, Nordstrom and Anthropologie, as well as online, aid escape from abuse.

Artisans craft textiles and other handmade goods to improve their lives through The Anchal Project.
Artisans craft textiles and other handmade goods to improve their lives through The Anchal Project. (photo: Courtesy photos / Anchal Project)

India is home to at least a million sex workers, often girls and young women who are victims of abuse and ill treatment but who feel trapped in the lifestyle, as they have little education or alternative means of making a living.

One bright spot in a seemingly hopeless situation can be found in the northern Indian city of Ajmer, with The Anchal Project, a nonprofit textile business founded by two Catholic women from Kentucky, which has already allowed many women to leave the sex trade.

The Anchal Project began in 2009, when Colleen Clines visited India as part of a college group and learned of the plight of women there.

“I was actually speaking with a representative from an NGO [nongovernmental organization], in the middle of a red-light district, and was told what these women needed most was alternative economic activity,” she told the Register.

She also learned about Kantha, a popular embroidery craft used in quilting. “It was something you could learn without a lot of training and do at home.”

An idea was born.

She returned home, and with the help of her sister Maggie Clines, she launched The Anchal Project, a textile business that produces items for sale, such as quilts, bedding, clothing and home goods. Her employees are women recruited out of the sex trade with the help of the India-based NGO Vatalya who now have a chance to earn a steady income at home making textiles, receive health benefits and continue with their education.

Since its founding, 180 Indian women have been recruited out of the sex industry, and Colleen hopes to expand and help many more.

Jaimala Gupta, co-founder of Vatsalya, noted that her NGO has been successfully working with The Anchal Project for a dozen years. The coming of Anachal allowed her NGO to offer women in need “something more tangible, meaningful and transformational.”

She explained, “Alternative livelihoods based on self-sustenance and respect were precisely what our programming lacked. Anchal brought that glimmer of hope to the women we serve in Ajmer.”

The company is named after a Hindi word for the decorative edge of a sari, an article of clothing worn by Indian women (made famous by Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity). Mothers wrap their babies in saris, so it is viewed as something that provides “love and comfort,” explained Colleen, “so Anchal can mean shelter.”

Anchal: Colleen & Maggie Clines with artisans
Colleen & Maggie Clines with artisans

The Anchal Project products are sold online, at major retailers such as West Elm, Nordstrom and Anthropologie, and at 200 boutique stores nationwide. Currently, sales top $1 million annually. Colleen has a staff of nine in Louisville to help her, as well as a board of directors to offer direction. Among those on the board is Tom Clines, Colleen and Maggie’s father, who has visited India to see The Anchal Project at work and who has come to champion the cause.

“Anchal reaches a population in India that has been taken advantage of and who has very little hope,” Tom said. “With Anchal, they can earn a living in an alternate profession, learn job skills and develop a safety net. They make beautiful products and receive an income stream well beyond anything they had available to them before.”

Tom noted that during recent pandemic lockdowns, when many Indians were sent home and unable to work, The Anchal Project provided a crucial lifeline. Additionally, Anchal artisans, in making textiles, “have a greater stature in the community and receive more respect. When I traveled to India and met these women, there was a joy they had that was a wonderful thing to see.”

Artisan Kamla, for example, remarked, “Five years ago, I didn’t think I could be here. But I am here, and I am happy now.”

Seema, another artisan, added, “We have something now of which to be proud. To leave the house, work, earn and set an example for our children — it’s everything.”

Artisan Nezma commented, “I am so proud. I made this with my own hands, and people want it in America.”

Gupta underscored, “The income [these artisans] bring home has empowered them, and they have begun to participate in decision-making. They can state their personal wishes more easily now and invest in things such as their health and their daughters’ educations.”

Some of these artisans, Tom added, with their newly acquired job skills, choose to leave Anchal and begin their own textile businesses, allowing for even greater independence.

Anchal Project
The products are sold at various retailors.

In October, The Anchal Project was honored to have a display as part of a larger exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum; it was the second time Anchal has collaborated with the museum. “It was a wonderful opportunity for us to share our story,” Colleen said.

Tom sees The Anchal Project as a reflection of his daughters’ faith and a desire to help those in need: “This has been a brave, selfless effort on the part of Colleen and Maggie, which is a business enterprise, but also a mission-driven enterprise. They are driven by compassion, self-denial and self-giving.”

Colleen concluded, “I am driven by my passion to support women through my skills in design. God and my faith guide my purpose and give me the strength to perform his plan for me to support women in need.”