Sex-Trafficking Survivors Are Behind This Handmade Sleepwear Brand
Each week TakePart columnist Sara Mohazzebi highlights the founders and stories behind socially conscious product lines that benefit communities in need. From children’s education to women’s empowerment, clean water, and more, we’re curating products that let you purchase everyday items and handcrafted artisan gifts that have an impact on the livelihood, health, and well-being of so many around the world.
Human sex trafficking is a global crisis: Although the practice is prohibited in 134 countries, at least 20.9 million adults and children are sold as sex slaves or forced laborers around the world. Back in 2005, when entrepreneur Shannon Keith traveled to India for the first time and witnessed modern slavery unfolding in red-light districts throughout the country, the issue wasn’t quite on the radar of mainstream media yet.
Appalled by the exploitation, Keith founded Costa Mesa, California–based Sudara’s Punjammies, a sleep and loungewear brand that offers women’s, men’s, and kids’ pajamas sewn by formerly sex-trafficked women in India. To date, the company has employed more than 300 women, many of whom are mothers—and who in turn have provided for more than 500 total children. For every product sold, a domino effect of sustainable impact and opportunity, including fair wages and job placement, is created for the women and their families. Sudara also donates to sewing center partners that create Sudara products, and the money is then invested in providing education for the women’s children, safe housing for those needing to escape abuse, and health and wellness services.
Keith, 41, spoke with TakePart about Sudara’s latest Punjammies collection and its commitment to breaking the cycle of sex trafficking.
TakePart: What motivated you to create Punjammies and to specifically focus on India?
Shannon Keith: Prior to Punjammies, I was in corporate sales, but I had done a lot of volunteer work, traveled often, and always had a place in my heart for the underserved and anyone who was marginalized and born into awful situations. When I was 30, I traveled to India, and that forever changed my purpose in life. India remains a source, destination, and transit country for victims of human trafficking and is the country with the highest number of trafficked individuals worldwide, with at least 3 million sex workers in the country.
TakePart: How does the purchase of a Punjammies product benefit sex-trafficking survivors?
Keith: Sudara’s impact metrics are not built on a give-back charity model but rather, job creation. However, one pair of Punjammies equals one day of employment for a woman in our program. We believe in dignified, living-wage employment, and we partner with indigenous organizations to establish micro-enterprise sewing centers that offer these women a fresh start and a place to heal. Our sewing centers in India provide wages for the women that are, on average, double the fair-trade baseline for their work. The women also have access to job training and placement services that afford them the freedom to choose their own pathways. Some become skilled tailors who open their own businesses; some choose other trades, such as becoming beauticians. A few of the women have also gone on to nursing school.
TakePart: All of Sudara’s women’s pajama pants have a woman’s name on the tag, and all the men’s and boy’s pants have male names. What do these names signify?
Keith: Each pajama pant has a story, and they come with a hang tag that tells you the story of the women behind them for the female collections, and the names for the male collections are after the sons of the female employees. Yveni, Kaveri, Sara, Somma—these are all the names of the women who are or have been a part of the Punjammie family. The story gets spread when anyone wears them and people ask about them. And then the story grows, and more people buy the product, and it drives demand, which creates more jobs for these incredible women.
TakePart: All of the designs are inspired by the beauty, color, and textures of Indian culture. How did Punjammies get its name?
Keith: The word “pajamas” is thought to be a derivative of the word “punjabi.” By naming our brand Punjammies, we would be paying homage to the country of origin that the women are from and would come back to directly benefit every woman producing them on the ground.
TakePart: What is the one thing you wish people knew about sex trafficking and the work that Sudara does?
Keith: A lot of people know about sex trafficking these days, but it doesn’t mean that the trends are being reversed. So there’s a difference between knowing about something and actually taking action to stop it. And with traffickers no longer having to walk the track anymore, and thanks to technology, it’s all set up behind the scenes, super seedy, through the Internet and also texts. It’s very easy for bad guys to make money.
TakePart: As the founder of a company committed to ending human trafficking long term, what are words you live by?
Keith: “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” It’s from Elder Lilla Watson, an aboriginal elder, and it’s this whole idea of our company brand, ethos, and core values—that we are women helping each other. Ultimately, our liberation is bound up with these women, and we are in this with them. And it is only by sheer luck that I wasn’t born into some brothel in India. After all, none of us choose the situation that we’re born into, and we just choose to work together for the betterment of women across the globe.
Sudara’s Punjammie sleep and lounge wear collection, including pajama pants, robes, and T-shirts, can be purchased at its official website. Enter our sweepstakes for a chance to win a pair of Punjammies pajama bottoms.