[TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses sexual abuse.]
During her first year at seminary in 2007, Dawn Manske of Made for Freedom attended a lunch led by a guest speaker who lectured about human trafficking. A short documentary began to play on the screen–an undercover reporter in Cambodia was trying to find the youngest girls being offered for sex. A few minutes in, a man ushers the reporter into a run-down building, his unbuttoned shirt flapping along with his quick stride. He brings a girl he claims is 10 years old into the room–Manske remembers thinking she looked closer to 7. Her dark hair hangs in a blunt bob, and she wears a pink t-shirt and shorts. For $10, she offers the reporter oral sex. “It just turned my stomach,” says Manske.
Through Made for Freedom, Manske partners with restorative centers for survivors of sex trafficking across the world. By stitching together brightly colored panels of fabric into pants, bags, and t-shirts, women and girls achieve independence and security through employment. Made for Freedom recently received an Arch Grant and moved into an office in the T-REX building downtown, which Manske shares with her husband Eric, co-owner of the company. A single pink rose from him sits in a glass vase on her desk. Metal shelves line the wall, holding stacks of folded pants wrapped in plastic and sealed with Made for Freedom’s hummingbird logo. Each pair comes with a card listing the name of the woman who made them, handwritten in ink.
Shortly before starting Made for Freedom, Manske traveled to India for two weeks with a research team to learn more about the problem of sex trafficking. As part of the trip, they visited a safe house that was home to 60 girls between the ages of 13 and 16 who had been rescued from traffickers. Manske and her fellow volunteers were invited to help the girls celebrate a national holiday, and they sat down together to make jewelry and play games. “Our job was not to go there and counsel them. Our job was to bring some joy into their lives. We had to totally cut off any thoughts of what they had been through.”
She gathered a rowdy group of the girls around her and taught them to sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” “It’s a really good song for when you don’t speak the same language,” she says. Meanwhile, one 15-year-old girl remained curled up in a ball in the back of the room, distraught. A nearby social worker told Manske that she had been taken from her family and sold to a brothel before arriving at the safe house, and had just found out that her family didn’t want her back. “She’s not in her hometown, she has little, if any education, she’s in a culture and a society that does not value her just because of her sex, and now she’s gone through this horrible experience. She’s been sold and used as a sex toy for who knows how long, abused, beaten, starved, that’s pretty much part of the routine, normally–and her family doesn’t want her back,” Manske says. Back home, she was juggling four sales jobs, but any reservations she had about starting Made for Freedom evaporated.
After raising initial capital through a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, Manske placed her first order in 2013, based on a pattern she drew by hand. Although her husband had a background in business, he encouraged Manske to build the company herself. “He could have come in sooner and we probably would have progressed faster,” she says. “He wanted it to be mine.”
Made for Freedom’s pants are made in Chiang Mai, Thailand at a center where women who have been victims of sex trafficking can receive education, counseling, and job skills training. Made for Freedom also manufactures t-shirts, which are made at a similar center in Calcutta, India, located on the edge of a red light district where over 10,000 women work as prostitutes. To make one item of clothing requires intense labor: workers must grow cotton, harvest it, weave it into thread, dye it, and so on. “When you see a sale and there’s a pair of pants for a dollar ninety-nine, there’s no way that dignity is being provided along the entire supply chain,” says Manske. “We purchase things that help us feel beautiful. We can do that at the expense of other people, or we can do that in a way that provides dignity for other people.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, Manske didn’t think she would end up here. Immediately after graduating from Missouri State University, she moved to China in 1990. “I wanted to do something, and in my mind that was getting out of St. Louis.” She first worked as a teacher, and then became the program director for a large international church in Beijing called BICF, where she managed teams of over 250 volunteers. She remembers attracting curious stares on her morning walks, and eventually decided to respond by smiling and greeting her neighbors in Chinese, which either prompted a furrowed brow or a broad grin. Her pale skin and blonde hair prevented her from blending in. “There’s a different way to be polite. And I just continued being very American about smiling at people and saying ‘Good morning’ and confusing all of them.” She’d return home from work, and the security guards at her apartment building would tease her when she gave the wrong response to traditional greetings, teaching her the correct thing to say.
A close friend of hers opened a school to house the street children that roamed the city at night, begging for food. They had been lured to the city by traffickers, who visited poor villages and convinced their families to part with them by promising them a better life, education, and coveted jobs. “They make all these beautiful promises, and they basically use the kids as slave labor,” she says. While living in Chengdu, Manske began visiting an orphanage to spend time with the children there. “There were so many little girls, because everyone wanted a boy. Girls were not important, girls were not valuable, so they just discarded them.”
Manske returned to the States years later, but struggled with the transition to life back home. She had trouble with the basics of of life in the U.S., like paying rent and utility bills. “I didn’t know how to do anything here,” she says. “I’ve lived more of my adult life in China than I have in St. Louis … Any time you live some place long enough, you become part of it.” She spent several years living with her mother, attending seminary, and working a variety of retail jobs before meeting her husband at a dinner party. “Directly across from me was this incredibly handsome man that says, ‘Dawn, you’re back!’ I had no clue who he is,” she says. Eric reminded her of the two times they had met before, years ago. “He remembered me, and I did not remember our conversations at all.”
At the time, Manske had been working at Trader Joe’s while looking for other opportunities overseas. “I stopped working on the resume. I thought, ‘I’ll just hang out at Trader Joe’s for a little while longer and see what happens with this guy.’” After they had been dating for five months, he proposed, and they were engaged for three and a half months before getting married. During premarital counseling, they were asked to fill out a survey listing how long they had known each other: Manske wrote down “six months,” while Eric wrote “10 years.” Manske officially registered Made for Freedom as an LLC six months after their wedding. Now, Eric works as Director of Operations, overseeing many logistical details of Made for Freedom’s operations, while Manske thrives on speaking engagements, travel, and the opportunities to share Made for Freedom’s message of empowerment. “My husband’s very good with organization and the systematic things. And I tell stories,” says Manske.
Recently, they took a cross-country road trip together to meet with boutique owners and convince them to carry Made for Freedom’s products. In a photo, Eric holds up a t-shirt proclaiming “We are all made for freedom” in front of Mount Rushmore as grey clouds gather in the sky above. “I desperately want to make a difference in the lives of women,” Manske says. “I don’t want to just help a few. I want this to be significant.” She is currently building new partnerships with restorative centers in Cambodia, India, Thailand, and Kenya. She marks several of the locations on a laminated world map hanging on the wall of her office, drawing stars with a thick black marker. “You can do business and really help people.”
For more information about Dawn Manske or Made for Freedom, visit here.