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Girls fight fate & keep the faith

Scarves by traffick victims get top billing

ROYALS WEAVE DESIGNER DREAMS FOR fightback force
Princess Eugenie and her mother, Sarah, browse the handicrafts made by the girls of Nijoloy

Amid all the speculation about whether estranged royals Duchess Sara ‘Fergie’ Ferguson and Prince Andrew are ready to reunite, a group of underprivileged women and girls, most of them trafficking survivors from the outskirts of Calcutta, are keeping the couple busy together while quietly working to improve their own lives.

The girls at Nijoloy, a shelter run by Women’s Interlink Foundation in Madhyamgram, and their designing skills have prompted the Duke and Duchess of York to join forces to develop a project titled Key to Freedom to help market their creations. And no less a brand than Topshop has given the girls’ creations a thumbs up.

The seeds of the Key to Freedom project were sown when Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth’s younger son, made Nijoloy his first stop during a trip to Calcutta in May last year as part of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations. This was followed by a private visit by his former wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Princess Eugenie.

Prince Andrew tries his hand at block-printing

First, duke...

“We were delighted when we learnt from the British High Commission in Delhi that His Royal Highness Prince Andrew would visit our home in Ganganagar, Madhyamgram. They organised everything and he came directly from the airport,” recalled Aloka Mitra, the chairperson and founder of Women’s Interlink Foundation (WIF).

“We showcased all that the girls do and we found him extremely sensitive in the way he asked us pertinent questions about how we deal with the curse of trafficking and initiatives taken by us and the state government,” the 73-year-old said.

The project, according to the Key to Freedom website, was started to support WIF by giving the girls a platform to sell their products. “The sale of these products to a wider customer group allows the women who sew and dye the garments to earn a living and regain control of the choices in their lives,” a post on the website declared.

All profits go straight back to the WIF to help rescue and support more young women and to build new homes.

The prince had taken time out to browse the handicrafts before trying his hand at block-printing with the girls and, as a parting gift, had left with the foundation two copies of Little Red’s Summer Adventure, a book written by his former wife. “My children have sent these books which are written by their mother (Sarah). This is something from my family to your family,” Prince Andrew had told Mitra.

“There was no talk about any donation or grant at the time. The only thing he had asked me was: ‘What do you think it will take to rehabilitate these girls?’ and I spoke about alternative income- earning capacity, a regular outlet to sell their work and skill development to make their craft more marketable,” recalls Mitra, who was taken by surprise when within an hour of the duke’s departure, she received a call asking her to meet the member of the royal family the same evening.

Aloka Mitra with Sarah and Eugenie

“He had already spoken to the duchess about us and his secretary connected us over phone. The duchess expressed her wish to be in touch with me and help out in whatever way she could in marketing the products abroad,” Mitra said.

“While I understood that their heart was in the right place, I also wondered whether busy people like them would find the time to give it further thought,” the WIF chairperson said.

Mitra’s doubts were put to rest when she travelled to London three months later and met Amanda, the duke’s secretary, at Buckingham Palace. “Not only did they find the time, but they were both so enthusiastic that both the duke and the duchess dropped in with their daughter to chat on the topic.”

Already an admirer of the duke and his efforts, Mitra found the duchess “warm and affectionate”. “I totally fell in love with her…. They came across as an ideal family. So much synergy in putting in their expertise to support our girls’ efforts, which is mainly block-printing by hand and tailoring.”

... then duchess

It was during this meeting that Sarah expressed her wish to visit the shelter in Calcutta. She kept her promise this March, visiting the Madhyamgram home with Eugenie and a friend of the princess’s, Jules.

Before that, designer Penny McIvor and the Topshop team visited Nijoloy to “advise and collaborate with the girls”.

Sarah wraps a silk scarf made by the girls of Nijoloy

“The duchess had brought some bracelets for the girls and wanted to spend some time with them, learning about their likes and dislikes. She seemed to know which girl looked unhappy and which one was a prankster,” Mitra said.

Eugenie, too, took keen interest in the project. “I believe both the sisters (Beatrice and Eugenie) are very sensitive to issues and making things better for those who aren’t fortunate. From what the duchess told me, Princess Beatrice looks after the financial side because her forte is accounting and finances and Princess Eugenie is more into the creative side and assessing charities they’d like to work with,” Mitra said.

While the Duke of York’s office continues to manage the project and develop a long- term vision for expanding the Key to Freedom model, Mitra says the duchess and her daughter are playing an active role in promoting the initiative. “It’s very close to their heart.”

The mother and daughter indulged in a Bengali lunch of rice, moong dal, bhetki maacher kalia, chutney, doi and mishti followed by a tea party to celebrate Jules’s birthday. “They particularly enjoyed the beguni,” Mitra smiled.

A portrait of Sarah with her daughters that she signed with a personal note as a gift

Fergie and the girls spent around four-and-a-half hours at Nijoloy and took back samples of handicrafts, especially scarves. “Whatever money the duchess and princess had in their handbags, say around 1,300 pounds, they left with us to help our initiatives,” smiles Mitra.

The money came to good use soon enough, when they received an order for 1,200 scarves-cum-sarongs for Topshop’s new collection. It was used to buy three Juki sewing machines for the girls. “It was very exciting and challenging for us to get a Topshop acceptance,” Mitra said.

To get them started, the duke also sanctioned 10,000 pounds from the Prince Andrew Charitable Trust. “We were totally thrilled!” Mitra exclaimed.

Thirty Nijoloy girls, aged 17 to 25, made four kinds of scarves, each from two metres of Murshidabad silk with traditional Indian motifs of tie ’n’ dye and block print. Within three months, the scarves made their way to the racks of Topshop, the popular British multi-national fashion brand, which launched it in July.

Priced at 32 pounds each, the girls got to sign on each tag attached to the scarf they had made. “The profits made from each scarf will be passed on to the duke’s charity which will decide on the donation they want to give the girls for their efforts,” Mitra added.

The tags signed by the girls from Nijoloy

“The girls were on top of the world after they received their share of the money which of course is very empowering for them. But more than that it’s also the kind of honour that this project has given them. They’re feeling so much more confident and enthusiastic…. I’ve been doing this work for 43 years and this comes as a huge validation of the efforts that we and our girls have made,” signed off Mitra, who is now keeping her fingers crossed for the next order of “kimono-like pyjamas”. “We’re working on the samples and hopefully the girls will crack it again!”