Sometime today, a transport truck loaded with used bras will pull out of a Denver storage yard and begin a journey that will literally change the lives of young women half a world away.
The truck will head to Chicago, where its cast-off cargo will be transferred to a shipping container for a two-month voyage to Mozambique, where it will be met by Dave Terpstra, co-founder of the inspirational charitable project called Free The Girls.
Terpstra, a Denver-area pastor, has received a few such shipments since setting up Free The Girls in 2010, but they’ve come in suitcases containing maybe a couple of hundred bras. Now, when the container arrives in June, it’ll be stuffed with 30,000 bras donated by women from across the U.S. and abroad.
Free The Girls has grown from a local, grassroots effort into a remarkable international campaign that gives women in developed countries a concrete way to create jobs and provide economic opportunities for some of east Africa’s most blameless and impoverished victims.
In Maputo, the bras will be sorted by young women in an FTG pilot program, who will then sell them in the city’s bustling second-hand clothing markets, where they can earn up to $9 a day — roughly three times the average daily wage in Mozambique.
All of the women participating in the project are survivors of sex trafficking who have been rescued by aid groups and are being supported in safe houses and aftercare facilities while going to school and trying to build normal lives. Most of the women were sold or forced into prostitution as early as age 8 and have little education or economic power. Most are now mothers, and most are HIV-positive.
“Free The Girls provides a very tangible, very personal way for people to help,” Kimba Langas (above), the group’s other co-founder, told Lingerie Talk. “By donating your used bras, you can see a very specific return on that — a woman who is starting a new life for herself.”
During a visit to Maputo in 2010 before moving there with his family for an economic development mission, Terpstra observed the booming second-hand clothing trade, and the lack of job opportunities for sex-trafficking survivors, and put the two together.
He then contacted Langas, a video producer and a member of his Denver-area church, and proposed the idea of a small pilot project to collect used bras in the U.S. as a way of creating employment for Maputo’s women. Langas, who had no previous exposure to or awareness of the sex-trafficking industry in underdeveloped countries, agreed instantly and began organizing collection efforts.
“Modern day slavery and human trafficking wasn’t on my radar,” she said. “But once I started digging into the cause, it grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go.”
Free The Girls saw its profile skyrocket last month when CNN featured the organization in a series of stories on sex trafficking called the CNN Freedom Project. You can view the CNN stories here.
Almost overnight, FTG’s mission struck a chord with people around the world. The group’s website has had over 11,000 visitors from 130 countries and Langas received “hundreds of e-mails” from people offering to help.
FTG’s all-volunteer team raises money through donations and the sale of T-shirts, with 100% of proceeds going directly into its job-creation efforts overseas. The group is awaiting federal approval for registered charity status.
As word spread about FTG, bra-collection efforts were organized by women’s organizations, churches, community groups, retailers and individuals across the U.S. A trucker donated his time to haul the donated bras to Chicago, and a shipping company volunteered to cover the cost of the getting them to Mozambique.
(And for women shopping for new bras, New-York based retailer Journelle is offering a 20% discount on purchases to customers who bring in or send a used bra, and will donate $1 to Free The Girls for every bra donated by March 31.)
“I’m still shell-shocked,” Langas said. “The response has been amazing, we’re so grateful. And it’s coming from people all over the world. It’s the best thing we could have hoped for.”
The phenomenal surge in donations has also prompted Free The Girls to develop long-range strategic goals and ways to use its newfound profile.
As it manages its growing inventory, the group is looking to expand its pilot project to include more women, and aims to take its economic development model to other African countries where sex-trafficking is still a grim reality.
At the same time, Free The Girls is quickly becoming known for its advocacy work and public awareness efforts. The group’s Facebook wall has become a kind of notice board for political news related to international efforts to fight human slavery, and Langas — who calls herself an “accidental abolitionist” — has emerged as an important voice of activism in the complex international politics surrounding human slavery and sex trafficking.
“I never would have imagined myself doing this, but it really struck a chord with me,” said Langas, who had a 20-year career in TV production before launching Free The Girls. “I’m a very fortunate woman who grew up in the suburbs; I went to college; I got married; I had children. I had every opportunity I could possibly want. Now it’s my responsibility to do what I can.”
Free The Girls, she says, resonates so powerfully because women everywhere can empathize with the plight of millions of young girls forced into sexual slavery — and they can do something to help.
“Donating a bra gives women a direct connection to the survivors, rather than just writing a cheque,” she said.
The images below show participants in Free The Girls‘ pilot project in Maputo as they sort donated bras.
For more information, visit the Free The Girls website or Facebook page. To learn more about Journelle’s campaign, visit their website. And watch CNN, which was on hand today to cover the departure of the Free The Girls shipment from Denver.