‘Free the Girls’ non-profit seeks bra donations

RANGELY I It’s more than a catchy double entendre. It’s doing something about the nearly 22 million women and children being held as slaves worldwide, many of them as pawns in prostitution rings and sex trafficking.

Free The Girls, a non-profit organization headquartered in Denver, collects gently-used bras for African and Central American women to sell in profitable secondhand clothing markets. Founded in 2011 through an unlikely partnership between an Emmy-winning television producer and an entrepreneur, the non-profit organization aims to connect average American women to sex-trafficking survivors in sub-Saharan Africa and El Salvador.
“There are a number of amazing organizations helping to rescue these women out of a life of prostitution, but what happens after they are rescued?” asks the organization’s website at www.freethegirls.org. “Many safehouses and aftercare facilities are doing great work in providing comprehensive rehabilitation and educational opportunities to survivors. But often, their resources are limited.”
Enter Free The Girls, which, after giving women business training and an initial donation of bras as inventory to start their own enterprise, then sells bras to sex-trafficking survivors for below-wholesale prices. The budding entrepreneurs then sell the undergarments—a sought-after commodity in many secondhand clothing markets—for a profit, using the cash for more inventory and as sustainable income for their families. Once the women have a financial safety net, they can move into other jobs or further develop their microbusiness.
When Rangely business owner Beth Wiley, who owns a pottery shop and boutique Elizabeth Robinson Studio, learned of the organization, she felt compelled to join the effort. That’s why through May, her shop, which sells local handmade items and international fair-trade goods, will give a 15 percent discount per item for every bra donated to Free The Girls.
It’s a natural fit for Wiley, who, since November, has committed to selling not just handcrafted pottery but also goods that only support sustainable markets in vulnerable communities—including many that help women provide for their families.
“Selling only ethically traded products is important to me,” Wiley said. “I’ve struggled to make a living from my work, but I have so many more advantages living where I do. It’s gratifying to help support the handiwork of artisans worldwide.”
A Fair Trade-certified product ensures laborers are paid a living wage according to their country’s economy, that no child or slave labor is used and that the business is a good steward, making responsible use of local resources and disposing of waste properly.
For Wiley, Free the Girls is another piece of the fair trade puzzle that helps ensure equitable business practices that support mothers, their families and their communities. At the end of the month, Wiley will mail the bras to the organization’s receiving warehouse in Indiana, where they’ll be cleaned, processed and shipped to distribution centers in Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda and El Salvador.
Other bras will remain in the U.S., where they will benefit exploited women here or be made into recycled materials.
So far, Free the Girls’ numbers seem to support the venture. Just three years into its mission, the non-profit had distributed more than 130,000 bras of all shapes, sizes and colors for women to participate in the $1-billion-a-year secondhand clothing industry.
It has also opened doors for women to start new lives and rehabilitate from their old ones. The micro-business is flexible, allowing women robbed of their childhoods to return to school or raise their families. Below-wholesale purchasing gives women a competitive edge over other secondhand sellers. And what women make on the bras often exceeds their country’s minimum wage several times over.
Perhaps most important, it gives sex-trafficking survivors a safe way to engage in business with other female clients.
“Most of us have lived a generally safe life, with many more advantages than these women,” Wiley said. “Together, we can help create jobs and a living wage for those in poverty and for the exploited and victimized. The more people who understand these issues, the bigger the difference even a small community can make.”
To donate your gently used bras (including athletic bras, camisoles or nursing bras) this month to Free The Girls, stop by the Elizabeth Robinson Studio during open hours or call Wiley at 970-274-1239 to meet her there.