The International Princess Project is a line of adorable loungewear that creates pathways to freedom for women escaping the ravages of sex slavery. In India, the average age of a girl entering the sex trade is eleven. Many who enter are trafficked… in other words kidnapped, lured with promises of jobs in the city or sold by their own friends or family into sexual slavery. It is estimated that there are more than 3 million women and girls enslaved in India’s sex trade.
Not content to sit by and do nothing, Shannon Keith, a mother of three from Oregon, founded IPP- a project that partners with indigenous organizations to establish micro-enterprise sewing centers that offer these women a fresh start and place to heal. When a woman becomes part of an IPP sewing center, she learns a new trade [sewing] and practices refining her craftsmanship by producing quality sleep & loungewear called PUNJAMMIES™. Each pair of PUNJAMMIES™ is named after a woman in one of their sewing centers so when you wear PUNJAMMIES, you are wearing a message of HOPE for others like the women who lovingly stitched your loungewear.
I just had to find out more about a women who has the compassion, drive and determination to literally change the lives of these women and children- despite the overwhelming magnitude of this situation. And change lives is what she has done. xo
How did the International Princess Project come to be?
In 2005, I took a trip to India that opened my eyes to a tragedy that was occurring daily to women and girls throughout the country. After visiting one of India’s many red light districts, I was forever changed by what I witnessed… modern day slavery.
I heard story after story of young girls sold into the sex trade by their families, orphans picked up off the street by pimps, and even young mothers just trying to feed their children. Many were held against their will. Others were trapped by economic poverty. Worst of all were the stories of those who managed to escape the brothels only to return due to social stigma with no other way to survive.
After returning home I gathered some friends and founded International Princess™ Project to advocate for these women, give them opportunities to restore their broken lives and empower them to live in freedom. We quickly discovered that without a new occupation, these women and girls stood little chance of surviving outside of the brothels and the fabric of the traditional Indian Sari inspired the solution. We worked with a seamstresses to create a simple pattern that the women could use to learn how to sew.
What is your background?
I worked in sales and as a sales trainer for nearly 10 years- though I was not necessarily passionate about the work- I have always been extremely passionate about helping people and serving marginalized populations. I recall even in high school volunteering and befriending handicapped adults-then in college I went on various service projects in the developing world: dental clinics in Mexico, 3 months in Nigeria west Africa working with street kids and women who had come out of the brothels teaching literacy classes. It has been incredible to see how my skills as a sales trainer [public speaking, communication, team building, working with people, etc.] have been utilized and really leveraged employing women in India through PUNJAMMIES. It has all come full circle in a really beautiful sort of way. It just goes to show that nothing in our life has to be wasted time, all of our experiences can somehow be used for the greater good if we allow it.
What I love about this project is that you are not just raising money and awareness, you are actively changing lives of these women by breaking the cycle and giving them a job and hope. Has there been standout moment/s from this journey you are on that has helped you realise the magnitude of the amazing work you are doing?
It is really just an honor and privilege to serve these special and amazing women. There have been many stand out moments, but sometimes when you are in the midst of the work it is “hard to see the forest from the trees” as they say. I will say that when our customers give us feedback, or a few fans post amazing videos on youtube and FB about our products/ cause, etc. it is really humbling and exciting to see that this is actually working! Women once sex slaves are now free and have access to dignified work through sewing PUNJAMMIES and customers are completely resonating with our cause and feeling empowered to actually do something to help end sex slavery vs. just being saddened by the magnitude of the problem. It is just the tip of the ice berg really. To many we are still an unknown brand, but our major focus and goal is that everyone who interacts with our cause and products would join our ranks, become brand advocates and in doing so our collective impact on ending human sex trafficking will be monumental! We can literally change the tide of sex slavery through the PUNJAMMIES model and like-minded social enterprises.
Can you share some of the challenges you have faced?
Like with any meaningful work, there are many challenges along the way. In the beginning stages one challenge was what is known as the “normalcy bias” where people do not want to believe the depth and severity of such an injustice as sexual slavery, so the tendency was to dismiss it rather than really engage. It is easier mentally and emotionally to reason it away and go back to living a normal life,… but thankfully human trafficking has gotten so much press in the recent few years, people knowing what it is and excepting it as fact is more the norm now. It took a while to get here but I am thankful it is at least on many people’s radars these days. Another challenge is needing to scale as a profitable business to really add value to the cause, but people need to remember we are dealing with a highly traumatized work force. We live in the tension of wanting to help as many women as possible and provide more and more jobs [really building a lasting lifestyle brand and scaling] while at the same time keeping the care and concern of the women and children we serve at the forefront. This is the double bottom line reality that all social enterprises deal with that is very different than a traditional for profit business that’s primary concern is only being profitable [hard enough as it is].
You are obviously dealing with the heavy, serious issue of Human Trafficking which must take its toll emotionally- what do you do to relax and unwind?
I lean into my faith and my family. My husband and 3 wonderful kids along with our extended family are such a source of joy and encouragement in my life. It is a very emotionally taxing issue to be involved in, and I am still learning the importance of self-care. I do live in a beautiful mountain community so some of my favorite escapes are running the river trail near my home, mountain biking and snowboarding, camping with my family and relaxing with a good book and glass of wine on my hammock in the summer.
Who and what inspires you?
My family [I see the face of God in them and I want to make the world a better place for them to love], the women we serve [these women are the most brave, courageous, strong and resilient human beings on the planet. To endure the hell of life in the brothels and to emerge with joy, hope and dreams for a brighter future is awe inspiring!] and the IPP team I have the honor of working with [the men and woman on my team from board, staff & volunteers… these are some of the most dedicated, selfless, capable, humble, hardworking and amazing people I know. They continue to inspire me with their love of others and dedication to excellence.] One of the common threads that are true for all of these groups is the idea that each one has hope for a better future. They all point me to the fact that there is room for redemption in this world and it’s worth fighting for.
Where do you see IPP in 5 years?
I see IPP being a recognized lifestyle brand that is known for ending sex trafficking.
How can we help?
Join forces with us. Buy our products and be intentional brand ambassadors to everyone you know! Having a deep and sincere belief that we can actually change the tide of slavery in our lifetime through our purchasing power, which will bring employment and economic self-sufficiency is the solution. It’s time for the mass of humanity to shift from “awareness” of the problem to action. Thank you so much for reaching out and highlighting our abolitionist work! From the bottom of our hearts and on behalf of the women we serve- we really appreciate it.
Please vist HERE to see Shannon’s amazing work and see how you can help.
Shannon Keith with two of her children- 8 year old twins Jackson & Siena.