Brave bid to tackle 21st century slavery

09:00 28 March 2012

Miriam Wakefield is pictured with the Polished Pearl

Miriam Wakefield is pictured with the Polished Pearl 'look book' at her home in Landkey.

Archant

Barnstaple women hope to make a big difference in Bangalore and beyone.

A LIFE-changing trip to India has inspired two North Devon women to make ambitious plans to tackle the world’s largest human trafficking crisis.

Miriam Wakefield and Nicole Robyn were so moved by the plight of victims they met during a trip to the country last June that they have developed a plan to help rescue some of the three million people affected by modern-day slavery.

The friends have embarked on an incredible journey to train and employ trafficking victims in the manufacturing of luxury handbags and accessories.

Last month, against all odds, they managed to launch their Polished Pearl label at a glittering reception during the week of London Fashion Week that helped win them the support of some of the industry’s most influential movers and shakers.

This week, the fledgling company is on the verge of securing the first order that would give dozens of young women the chance to escape a life of prostitution and abuse in the slums of Mumbai and Bangalore.

“The last nine months have been like birthing a baby,” said Miriam, from Landkey.

“We’re just two girls from Barnstaple with no business experience whatsoever but our inspiration comes from seeing the suffering of these young women.”

While in India, Miriam, 63, and American-born Nicole, 36, met a team of volunteers from Oasis India, an organisation that provides support to victims of sex trafficking.

“We spent our first day in the brothels of Mumbai, in the largest red light area in the world,” said Nicole.

“We saw the faces, held the hands, cried many tears. We will never be the same.

“Life can be dark beyond imagination for the women who have been trafficked into prostitution. They feel that they have no life beyond the brothel walls, and with little or no education, and no other work experience, they see prostitution as their only way to survive.

“We asked Oasis what they needed to help more women and they told us that although there are rescues and some restoration homes, training and employment are still the biggest need.

“It is very difficult for a woman in India to find a job in the best of circumstances, especially for those women who have never known anything but brokenness and shame.

“This is where we can make a difference.”

Using beading and textiles that are easily available in India, the manufacture of handbags and accessories will give women skills that are marketable in their own country.

“We want to employ the girls, not merely finance them,” added Miriam.

“We believe every life is a pearl – beautiful, precious, unique and rare; even though they may be hidden away in dark places, they are of great value. The idea of the handbags is that it represents something beautiful and rare on the outside but is also unique and beautiful on the inside.

“Every bag sold will help save a life.”

During the last nine months, Miriam and Nicole, together with American designer Terry Eklund, have enlisted the help of a website designer, as well as a fashion photographer and models who provided $50,000 worth of free photography used to produce a ‘look book’ for the 12 handbag designs created so far.

They have even managed to secure free CEO training for Nicole and have attracted the attention of an independent documentary film maker who has shot a short piece about the company to pitch to programme directors.

On February 18, they took their biggest gamble yet, hiring out the costume gallery at the Royal Courts of Justice as part of an audacious bid to launch Polished Pearl to the world during London Fashion Week.

They emailed 150 invites to industry moguls, as well as MPs and peers. When they received around 100 replies, they knew there was no going back.

“We weren’t even sure how we were going to pay for the hire of the hall but this is a justice issue and we were next door to the highest court in the land and felt this was exactly where we were supposed to be,” said Miriam.

“Human trafficking is the slave trade of the 21st century. I found it very symbolic that we launched Polished Pearl in the very same corridors of power where William Wilberforce abolished slavery some 200 years ago.

“Although our task looks as daunting and impossible now as it did then, I am encouraged that, as history repeats itself, it also teaches us that human trafficking can also be abolished.

“The launch went incredibly well and we hope to exhibit at London Fashion Week in September, in a category showcasing ethical design.”

On Tuesday, a meeting with a top London buyer could secure the all-important first order for the bags and kick-start the creation of the firm’s first factory in Mumbai.

“We need that order and then we’ll be in production. It’s not the usual way you run a business but we’ve flown in the face of it all round,” added Miriam.

For more information about Polished Pearl, visit www.polishedpearl.org

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