Rescue and educate "carpet kids" in South Asia

May 15, 2009

Faces of Freedom


Out of economic desperation, Sunita’s family sold her to a thekedar (broker) for the equivalent of $2.50. She was made to work 18 hours a day as a carpet weaver and domestic servant to pay off the “loan.” RugMark rescued her in 2005, and from then on Sunita began to live and study at the RugMark rehabilitation center. Now 12, she dreams of teaching Nepali and English.

In the time since RugMark’s founding in 1994, the number of children working as weavers in South Asia has been reduced from 1 million to 300,000. And while this is a great improvement, there is still much left to be done. Part of what makes child labor so intractable is its invisibility. RugMark endeavors to bring light to this issue through Faces of Freedom, the traveling photo exhibition. Co-sponsored by the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Faces of Freedom is part of RugMark’s Most Beautiful Rug campaign to end exploitative child labor in the handmade rug industry.

In this collection of images, award winning photographer U. Roberto Romano brings consumers, interior designers and industry entrepreneurs into the hidden loom sheds in South Asia, showing them the poignant faces of bonded carpet weavers as well as those liberated from the looms by RugMark. The stories of Sunita and many others like her remind viewers of their impact on the lives of children across the world, and of the real life difference made by RugMark.

In February, the collection debuted in its first major public venue at the Senate Russell Building Rotunda, in conjunction with a standing-room-only event to honor Senator Harkin. The images have since appeared at the Minneapolis Children’s Theater, George Washington University, and Robin Gray Design, among other venues, bringing the estimated total number of viewers to date to nearly 13,000, not including online viewers totaling over 3,000.

Over the next several months the exhibition will reach thousands more viewers as it travels all over the U.S.; the tour will be highlighted by a month-long display at UNICEF House in New York City. We welcome you to view the full image collection and tour schedule online at

Your support makes it possible for RugMark to share the stories of these “carpet kids,” underscoring the opportunity for each of us to make meaningful difference by choosing child-labor-free. With every ethical RugMark certified purchase, resources are being redirected back to impoverished weaving communities in South Asia, educating thousands of children and sending an important. Thank you for your help in bringing children from carpet looms to classrooms.

Please share your thoughts on this update in our comments section!

Feb 4, 2009

RugMark Offers Hope to Former Carpet Slaves In 2008 RugMark inspectors in India and Nepal rescued a

In 2008 RugMark inspectors in India and Nepal rescued and rehabilitated over 116 enslaved child carpet weavers, bringing the number of rescued children to over 3,200 since RugMark’s founding. Every single child is offered an opportunity to reunite with their families and to get an education. RugMark ensures that students have the necessary financial and social support to stay in the classroom and off the carpet looms.

Nina Smith, RugMark USA’s Executive Director, recently returned from a trip to India and Nepal where she visited RugMark’s schools and was able to talk with many of the former child laborers and children of adult weavers who are studying with RugMark’s support. Laxmi Shresta was one such student. A RugMark inspector rescued her from a carpet factory at the age of six and she has since flourished as a student in Nepal. Now 18, Laxmi is the pride of her family, studying hotel management, speaking fluent English and offering hope to her mother and three sisters. Her family can barely scrape together the 1,500 rupees (equivalent to $20) to rent one dilapidated room for their home. Laxmi’s education will break the cycle of extreme poverty that has kept her family living on the edge. Laxmi's mother said that "RugMark is Laxmi's second family". RugMark continues to offer hope of a better future to more children like Laxmi each year.

While much progress has been made in Nepal and India, the number of children rescued from factories and enrolled in school remains directly connected to how many companies and consumers in rug purchasing countries, such as the United States, care about the issue. RugMark USA recently launched a travelling photo exhibition, Faces of Freedom, in order to drive home this message. A collection of 50 images captured by photo documentarian and filmmaker U. Roberto Romano, the exhibition takes you behind the looms and inside the carpet factories of South Asia. The photos also connect you to the positive, real-life difference made by RugMark and its partners.

Jun 9, 2008

2007 Audit

For supporters of RugMark interested in knowing more about our 2007 financial statements, please feel free to browse through our recently completed audit.

Apr 3, 2008

In Honor of Iqbal

There are stories that offer hope, bring tears, shed light, teach lessons… but only a few start movements. This is the story of Iqbal Masih and the birth of RugMark.

Each spring, RugMark commemorates the tragic murder of Iqbal Masih, an indentured carpet weaver who ultimately became the face of the child labor movement. On this 13th anniversary of Iqbal’s death, RugMark would like to announce a new initiative to continue his legacy.

RugMark is assembling a photo exhibition of South Asia’s ‘carpet kids' to tour the U.S. later this year. Iqbal put a human face on an otherwise anonymous issue. With your support, RugMark will traverse the country introducing more faces and making certain that companies and consumers face up to this problem. Iqbal is woven into all we do year-round and has now inspired the “Faces of Freedom” exhibit.

You may know the story of how four year-old Iqbal was sold into slavery in Pakistan for a loan the equivalent of $12. He was forced to weave rugs for six years, 14 hours-a-day, six days-a-week. Despite his relentless toil, the debt grew to 13,000 rupees or $260, an insurmountable sum in a country where 13% of the population live on less than $1 a day.

Iqbal was rescued at the age of 10. Having spent half of his life malnourished and in a cramped loom shed, Iqbal was only four feet tall and a mere 60 pounds. The most dramatic part of this story is actually what happened next. Iqbal became the ambassador of child slaves and traveled to the U.S. and Europe, where the rugs children make are bought and sold.

Lauded as a hero by the human rights community and fellow children still toiling on carpet looms, Iqbal was also perceived as a threat to a certain industry faction. On Easter Sunday in April 1995, Iqbal was murdered while riding his bike in his hometown. Over a decade later, the case remains unsolved. It is widely held that he was targeted by the so-called 'carpet mafia’ for his highly visible role.

RugMark was born in the wake of Iqbal’s death and is dedicated to ending child labor, one industry at a time. In addition to inspecting carpet manufacturing facilities and offering educational alternatives to those rescued, RugMark confronts the invisibility of child labor. It is difficult to see small children hidden in dark loom sheds, their sweat and tears absorbed by the yarn. RugMark, with your support, shines a light on this inhumane practice for all consumers to see and creates a transparent trading system so shoppers know the responsible option.

With "The Most Beautiful Rug" campaign, RugMark USA ensures that no one can claim ignorance of this injustice. Since its debut, RugMark’s market share has doubled, touching the lives of 10,000 child weavers, generating $250,000 from certified rug sales to support social programs in artisan communities, harnessing the power of 75,000 consumers, and partnering with almost 50 companies to build ethical supply chains.

On this anniversary, let me thank you again for supporting RugMark's work to end child labor in the way that Iqbal began - by reaching consumers. Please stay tuned to RugMark's website for more information on the "Faces of Freedom" exhibit.

Dec 18, 2007

Picturing an End to Child Labor

Laxmi in 2000
Laxmi in 2000

Nearly a decade ago, a single photograph captured the plight of one million ‘carpet kids’ and helped launch RugMark USA’s campaign to end child labor. Rescued nine year-old Laxmi Shrestha, with her stoic yet innocent expression, was seen in stores and homes throughout North America. Laxmi came to symbolize the tragic consequences when children are forced into an adult world.

Today, I’d like to paint a very different, but equally powerful, picture for you. RugMark has reduced child exploitation in South Asia’s handmade rug industry by two-thirds. As for RugMark’s poster child, Laxmi is now 16 and enrolled in college. On a visit to Kathmandu this summer, I found Laxmi laughing with fellow students at the Laboratory School, one of Nepal’s foremost academic institutions. I wanted to share this recent photograph with you (link below).

To transition the remaining 300,000 children from carpet loom to classroom, RugMark USA unrolled "The Most Beautiful Rug" consumer awareness campaign in 2006. A snapshot of the campaign after one year shows the face of RugMark is indeed changing. From the pages of "Good Housekeeping" to "Fast Company", the websites of PBS to "Interior Design", the channels of CNN to "Conscious Living", RugMark has brought unprecedented attention to the problem and galvanized millions of shoppers to be part of the solution.

In 2007, RugMark was labeled by one prominent design blog as “amazingly proactive,” hailed by a humanitarian magazine for “winning the battle to end child labor” and thanked by a former child weaver for giving her “a new birth in this world.”

The burgeoning consumer demand for RugMark rugs has brought results overseas – childhood was restored to 124 children like Laxmi already this year. And we’re just getting started. Fifteen percent of imported handmade rugs could carry the RugMark® label in the next decade, effectively eliminating child labor from South Asian looms. Unfortunately, child slavery is far from gone. Last month, a story broke that showed the world the urgency and importance of RugMark’s work. An investigation in India by "The Observer" uncovered a sweatshop, including workers as young as 10, making clothes for GapKids. In the aftermath, activists and experts have repeatedly cited RugMark’s program as a model to which the fashion industry and others should look.

Next year, RugMark USA plans to share its expertise with the child labor and wider fair trade movements. While still young ourselves, RugMark, like Laxmi, has grown up and our organization has valuable insight about how to build an equitable global marketplace that can transform individual lives. In 2008, RugMark will also work to expand its program – reaching even more children trafficked throughout Asia’s carpet belt. In order to do this, RugMark needs increased philanthropic support.

This season of giving, I ask you to make a contribution to move our mission forward and to honor how far we’ve come. Your investment will help RugMark to unroll "The Most Beautiful Rug" in new markets, share our model and rescue and educate more children.

Laxmi is a testament to what RugMark has achieved in under 10 years. With your support, imagine the picture we can create in the next decade.

Laxmi Today
Laxmi Today


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GoodWeave USA

Washington, DC, United States

Project Leader

Nina Smith

GoodWeave Executive Director
Washington, DC United States

Where is this project located?