After discovering a shared love of cooking, Ayesha and nine other Munshiganj sex-trafficking survivors formed a self-empowerment group, with the help of Apne Aap, called Sonar Bangla ("Prosperous Bengal"). Wanting to support themselves outside of prostitution, the group members decided to turn their culinary passions into a thriving business.
They resolved to start a canteen to sell food to business people who work in nearby offices. Ayesha, the group's leader, believes that the canteen is not just a good use of the women's skills, but is also a good business strategy. "There is no good canteen in or around the area where many people come to work in the offices. If [workers] get a clean and tasty lunch, they will definitely come back to our canteen again and again," said Ayesha.
The Sonar Bangla group officially opened in January 2012. Currently the group supplies lunch to Apne Aap employees and to the children at Apne Aap’s community center, but they are making plans to expand. Group members are trying to raise enough money to rent a kitchen and storefront, where they can begin to formally engage the market. Although the group faces challenges, its early successes indicate that Sonar Bangla has a bright future. With support, Sonar Bangla can gain the resources it needs to be a sustainable alternative to life in prostitution.
Sonar Bangla’s endeavor is just one example of the ways in which women organizing under the Apne Aap banner are being empowered to break out of the cycle of exploitation. Apne Aap has now organized over 10,000 women and girls, who are at the risk of or are in prostitution, into self-empowerment groups to access four fundamental rights—education, sustainable livelihood, legal empowerment and safe housing. Self-empowerment groups meet in local safe spaces which offer community classrooms, vocational training units and legal education.
Photo: Sonar Bangla group at work. Photo courtesy of Apne Aap.