April 22, 2014— -- A New Zealand pastor and his wife have made it their mission to take on India’s billion-dollar sex industry by rescuing young prostitutes from one of the largest "red light" districts on Earth.
The streets of Sonagacchi in Kolkata, India, are home to more than 10,000 prostitutes, many of whom are teenage girls. Most are sold into the sex trade by their families.
Pastor Kerry Hilton and his wife, Annie, who have lived in Sonagacchi for about 15 years, said they were shocked when they first moved to India and stumbled upon them. They had no idea their apartment overlooked the largest sex bazaar in India -- until the sun went down.
"We felt that these women straight away were our neighbors," Kerry Hilton said.
The couple created "Freeset," a company that manufactures burlap bags and cotton t-shirts and was built on a bold business model.
"We don't hire on the basis of experience or skill," Kerry Hilton said. "We hire on the basis of a need to be free."
"A lot of places talk about rescuing girls," Annie Hilton added. "We want them to have a choice, where they have never had one before and to provide an economic solution."
The company started with 20 women, and today employs more than 200, many of whom have never sewn or held a pair of scissors before working at Freeset. But many come from a horrible past. One girl said her mother had been a prostitute and she was groomed for the same fate, before she went to work for the Hiltons.
"It was safer for her to work with us, but actually for me, she was the example of the future generation where the cycle can be broken," Annie Hilton said. "We're so proud of her."
But in India's dangerous sex trade, saving a woman from prostitution also means someone else's profits are being cut. Kerry Hilton said he and his wife have been threatened for their work.
"Someone rang up and said they were the police, I don't know if they were, but threatened to kill us... if we didn't pay," he said. "They were after a lot of money and it was quite a conversation."
But Kerry Hilton said they didn't pay up then, and now their business is expanding. They are opening a new factory in the region that has fed India’s brothels for generations with a new crop of poor, desperate girls year after year.
"Our solution is that we'll do this for the rest of our lives," he said.