shay mitchell
Credit: Melinda DiMauro Photography

Actress Shay Mitchell may be on hiatus from her hit show Pretty Little Liars, but that doesn't mean she's resting on her laurels. Instead, the 27-year-old recently embarked on a trip to India with ethical fashion brand Raven + Lily to help the team with its mission of helping women around the world break the cycle of poverty through safe jobs that provide a sustainable income. Mitchell first learned about the company when she noticed a friend "wearing a beautiful necklace," she tells InStyle shortly after her trip. "She told me it was a company called Raven + Lily and that the necklace had been made from melted down bullet casings by HIV+ women in Ethiopia." Mitchell found the story so rich and inspiring that she just had to learn more.

InStyle recently caught up with Mitchell to talk about her experiences on the trip, and what we can all do to help.

What prompted you to take this trip with the team?I’ve always had a huge passion for helping women and have been involved with a lot of other organizations that support women in various capacities. I have also always dreamt of traveling to India and was actually in the middle of planning a trip of my own, so it was serendipitous that Raven + Lily offered me the opportunity to travel along with them and get to meet the women and girls they are working with personally.

Part of the trip involved a visit with former trafficking victims, which is a cause you’ve fought for before. Why does it affect you so?No woman should ever have to experience this. Ever. But human trafficking is something that is uncomfortable to talk about and, for that reason, it’s often swept under the rug or not discussed. In order for this to end, we have to talk about it. We have to talk about the issue of human trafficking, the solutions and the reality that it’s happening everywhere.

What was the best moment of the trip? Worst moment?The best moment of the trip was going into the homes of women in the Raven + Lily partnership in Northern India. They are one of the longest-running partnerships Raven + Lily has and so they’re really an example of what is possible with this model. We visited the home of a woman named Ferdoz, who has five daughters. In India, girls are traditionally thought of as a burden because of their dowry and after her fifth daughter was born, Ferdoz’s husband left her alone with no money to care for her family. Women in this Muslim community were not allowed to work outside the home, but the system that Raven + Lily uses allows them to work on jewelry and paper goods from inside their home, allowing them to respect the local culture, while also accessing sustainable income. Fast forward years later and Ferdoz now has a safe, clean, comfortable home where her daughters can live and thrive. They even showed us their dance studio where they taught me how to Bollywood dance!

The hardest part of the trip was facing the extreme poverty in India head on. It’s everywhere and it’s inescapable. It can be really overwhelming, but I think it’s important to stay focused on helping these communities one person at a time because every single person matters.

shay mitchell
Credit: Melinda DiMauro Photography

What does taking a trip like this make you realize?This trip made me realize how far we’ve come already. Raven + Lily started with a small group of a few artisans and has grown into 13 partnerships employing thousands of women. But that being said, there is still so much more work to be done. In every partnership we visited, the women are hungry for more work so that more people in their community can have the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families and live with dignity. There are millions of women all over the world who just need to be given the opportunity to work.

What was the greatest thing you learned from the trip?A job is a powerful thing. By giving a woman a chance to discover what she’s good at and use her time, talent and skills to contribute to her community, she not only can provide for herself and her family, but she also gains confidence and dignity. She will feel like she can take on the world.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a day that celebrates the achievements of women while also calling for greater equality. This year’s theme was “make it happen.” What can we do today—big or small—to make change happen for women around the world?It’s up to you and I to make wise and careful choices about the products we buy because every time we make a purchase we have the chance to help someone. I know that it can feel overwhelming, but start small. Find companies like Raven + Lily that are fair trade, ethical and environmentally-friendly and make a point to shop from them when you need things for yourself or for a gift. By doing so, you’ll have a chance to help people around the world, but you’ll also feel good about it—and you’ll have a great story to tell every time someone compliments what you’re wearing.