Think of the last outfit you tried on at the mall. What went through your head as you stood in front of the mirror? Maybe you imagined yourself wearing it to a party, or how it'd look with a different pair of shoes. But, I'm willing to bet that the last thing you imagined was the place where the outfit came from. So many of the clothes we wear are made from the hands of sweatshop labourers, including children. Nasreen Sheikh was one of those children.
Born in an impoverished rural village in Nepal, Nasreen was taught from the age of nine that her value as a human being came down to how many garments she could produce in a fifteen-hour work day. All of Nasreen's freedom was taken from her and her suffering was ignored. Today, Nasreen is a young woman in her mid-twenties, a fearless anti-sweatshop advocate and the first girl in her village to escape forced marriage. Nasreen and I met during her very first trip to Canada and she shared her unbelievable story with me.
Nasreen’s childhood was not a childhood at all - it was a blur of never-ending labour in a ten-by-ten room, where she and several others ate, slept and worked for $2 a day, seven days a week. “We worked from 5 AM to 10 or 11 PM daily. You wake up, you go and sit at the machine and work,” she says. “There was no system, no clean water, the bathroom was dirty and I did not have any bed. At the end of the day, I would take up all the t-shirts I made and spread them out, then make into like a bed, fold some of the t-shirts into pillows and then sleep like that.”
At the sweatshop, Nasreen and the other workers wouldn’t get paid if they didn't complete their impossible weekly quota. “If we did not make 500 pieces and fill the order, then the order would get cancelled and we would not get paid. So, for that reason, we have to keep working because we’d lose the whole week of work.” Some days, she was forced to work from 4 AM to midnight because of constant pressure from her supervisor. “I had to splash cold water in my eyes and sometimes I would have to put on some loud music so that my head doesn’t go to sleep to complete the order,” she says.
The clothes were the centre of Nasreen’s world. She would talk to them in her head as she worked, to occupy her nine-year-old mind for fifteen hours a day. The air she breathed was polluted with the fabric’s chemicals. She picked loose threads out of the small bowl of rice and lentils she was given for dinner. She also grew to hate the clothes for being the reason that she was imprisoned. “This shirt, I hated it, I really hated those shirts that I was making. And many times I was so angry.” She channelled her sadness into every t-shirt as if she were weaving it into the stitches, convinced that the person who would wear it someday would realize her pain. Sitting across from me, Nasreen’s eyes fill with tears as she recalls the traumatic memory.
For Nasreen, this was the only reality she could’ve imagined for herself. This was the place that the children from her village - deprived of an education and a chance at a real childhood - were supposed to go. She thought that the sweatshop was where she’d remain until she was forced into an arranged marriage at age sixteen like her sister was. Now, Nasreen says she hardly recognizes her sister anymore. Her sister’s lively spirit has been replaced by submissive silence, and it scares Nasreen. Just as it scares all of the young girls forced into marriages, who are stripped of their right to choose their own futures and the freedom to be themselves.
“But, that is what the biggest system wants is for humanity to be silent,” she says. “To not speak. There’s education for girls in my village that the more silent you are, the safer you will be. The less smile you give, the more beauty you have. Feminine energy is so oppressed and woven in society to create imbalance. Those things, later, made me realize that I need to give voice to these women.”
Nasreen was given a one-in-a-million chance to change her life. With that chance, she risks her own safety every day to help countless other women and girls to change theirs. Nasreen founded a fair-trade, women’s sewing collective called Local Women’s Handicrafts (LWH), which she describes as “the expression of everything opposite of the sweatshop.” LWH provides disadvantaged women with skills training and sponsorship to empower them to start their own businesses with a microfinance loan or to become teachers at the centre. Nasreen’s entire face lights up as she describes the centre. “I’m trying to bring these community women together and to let them know their values, how they can take their power and turn it into their freedom.”
But, in rural Nepal, Nasreen walks with a target on her back. As an anti-sweatshop and women’s rights advocate, she is seen as a threat to the world that she comes from. “When I go to Nepal, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, somebody is just going to come and [attack me with acid],’ because this is so normal in Nepal. When they see this girl is going to be a threat to my profit, it’s very easy to kill people,” says Nasreen. “Ten thousand dollars you give to someone, they disappear and it does not even make it to the mainstream because everything is so corrupt. My biggest fear is for my own safety.”
Still, Nasreen refuses to quit. As the only girl from her village who has ever had the privilege of travelling overseas - not only to experience the Western world for herself but to speak in front of thousands about the life she comes from – Nasreen is making global change her life’s work. “I feel like my experience can help the Western world to understand what is happening,” she says. “Once the Western world understands, they will demand. Once they demand, these villages will have a different system. The villages have lost the voice, so they are looking up to us to help them and to support them.”
“I think Canada, America and Europe, all these places are still participating in slavery. There are 1200 companies worth $34 billion that are making products that could be made from child labour," she says. According to The World Wildlife Fund, it can take 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. “Why can’t we build an app where it can show how many people work to make one t-shirt?” Nasreen asks me. “How many people know that one t-shirt takes that much natural resource? We are just so disconnected.”
But, when it comes to making a difference, Nasreen is optimistic. “The internet is a huge power to us as humanity, and if we use it in the right way, we can make a difference so quickly. For the millennials, this is a golden chance. We have the technology, and all we have to do is connect now and work together as a collective.”
Instead of looking outward for a solution, Nasreen says that the first step Canadians can take is to look inward, at their own lives. “When you wake up, when you use your toothbrush and your toilet paper – where does it come from and who makes it for you? Start with your own life, what you put in your body and what you eat. It is making a difference not only in your life but someone else’s life. This is one world, we all are one. Let’s support each other.”
To read more about Nasreen Sheikh and Local Women's Handicrafts, click here.