Sunitha Krishnan: The Icon Who Has Saved Over 17,000 People From Human Trafficking
April 1st, 2017
“I’m not asking you all to become Mahatma Gandhis or Martin Luther Kings, or Medha Patkars, or something like that. I’m asking you, in your limited world, can you open your minds? Can you open your hearts? Can you just encompass these people too? Because they are also a part of us. They are also part of this world. I’m asking you, for these children, whose faces you see, they’re no more. They died of AIDS last year. I’m asking you to help them, accept as human beings — not as philanthropy, not as charity, but as human beings who deserve all our support. I’m asking you this because no child, no human being, deserves what these children have gone through.” – Dr Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder, Prajwala.
For those of us familiar with the gender equality movement in India, Sunitha Krishnan is a well-known figure. As one of the staunchest opponents of human trafficking, Dr Krishnan today is one of the most passionate voices fighting for women empowerment. She is best known for co-founding Prajwala, an NGO crusading against human trafficking and which has saved more than 17,800 lives who were forced into prostitution.
The Logical Indian recently interviewed Sunitha Krishnan. Born in Bengaluru in 1972, and trained as a medical and psychiatric social worker, Dr Krishnan’s parents were supportive of her taking up social work as a full-time pursuit. And her journey has been long, eventful, and consequential. “When I started,” she says, “I was left nauseous and shocked by the sight of 15-year-old victims. Today, I am not surprised even when it is a 5-year-old victim.” Hers is a story of ensurance, perseverance, passion, and success.
Attacked 14 times for saving innocent lives
Sunitha Krishnan is adept at converting adversity into an opportunity to change society. Gang raped by eight men at the age of 15, Dr Krishnan knows the dire consequences of sexual abuse firsthand. However, she has never let that incident ruin her life. In the years since that incident, she has cemented her status as a social icon and grassroots activist. She says, “One particular thing that irks me – and this is a general comment, to make myself more clear – is when people get caught up with the starting point of my journey. They make it as if my entire journey, my aspirations, and my dreams are all about that one incident. The other day, there was an article, it was fantastically written, but its title was “Rape Survivor Takes On Technological Firms”. It belittles the journey I – and others like me – have gone through.”
Indeed, Dr Krishnan has surpassed all barriers of human courage and used her traumatic experience to define her path to bring victims of sex trafficking back to mainstream society. In the process of saving lives, she has been attacked 14 times by criminals and left impaired in her right ear, but her determination only strengthened over time.
But never has she allowed these obstacles to inhibit her work. “It wouldn’t have been possible,” she says, “without powerful partnership on the ground. Whether it is building the biggest rehabilitation camp in the country or a successful counter-trafficking campaign or getting proactive, victim-friendly policies and legislations passed, the journey of Prajwala has always been about the power of the partnership. At the grassroots level, the partnership is with the survivor. Up the ladder, the partnership only expands. Whether it is partnership with the police, partnership with the Department of Women and Child Welfare, partnership with the police, partnership with corporates, whatever Prajwala is today, it is testimony to what a collaborative model of working can achieve.”
Prajwala – an NGO changing the lives of millions
Prajwala (link to the official website here) stands upon five pillars: prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration, and advocacy. The organisation extends moral, financial, legal, and social support to victims of trafficking and ensures that perpetrators are brought to justice. During Prajwala’s early years, Sunitha Krishnan had to sell her jewellery and even most of her household utensils to make ends meet. Even today, in fact, the organisation relies on her awards or her husband for finances. But monetary limitations have not proved to be limitations to Prajwala’s ambitions.
The NGO has educated over 8,000 children – children of prostitutes, children of vulnerable communities, children at risk of being trafficked. Additionally, Prajwala’s community-based education programme has sensitised millions of people in gender relations. Additionally, the organisation’s grassroots rescue work – exemplified by the Rape Victim Support Programme (RVSP) – provides a framework so that the police, the courts, and activists can coordinate to rescue victims of trafficking. In 2015, because of the NGO’s efforts, a PIL (56/2004) filed in 2004 enabled the Supreme Court of India directed the government to issue comprehensive anti-trafficking guidelines for the entire nation.
Prajwala has initiated and spearheaded several campaigns over the years. Two noteworthy campaigns are:
- The Swaraksha campaign: It reached out to over 1 million people and was the first ever survivor-led campaign;
- Men Against Demand (MAD): This campaign wholly engaged with men and boys to sensitise them and inspire them to sensitise other men to not buy sex.
Sunitha Krishnan is also an avid filmmaker. Her films (details here) have won several international, national, and state awards and accolades. They focus on issues like trafficking, rehabilitation of survivors, rape etc.
The Prajwala team understands the importance of coordination between stakeholders. “We need diverse partners to come together and conspire together to achieve goals. If on the ground we are doing a lot of rescue, it is because of proactive policing; if we are securing more convictions, the credit also goes to the judiciary and the prosecution; if there are fewer and fewer victims and more reintegration, it is also because the Women and Child Welfare Ministry. Prajwala is a facilitating body that ensures that all these stakeholders can achieve common goals through efficient means.”
“Besides the rescue programmes and the rehabilitation programmes, Prajwala also manages emergency shelters, children’s shelters, adults’ shelters, and one of largest educational and economic rehabilitation programmes in the world. The main aim is social reintegration, and to that effect, Prajwala has made it possible for thousands of children to overcome their trauma and rejoin society.”
Co-founder of the largest anti-trafficking shelter in the world
Till date, Prajwala has rescued, rehabilitated, or served over 17,000 survivors of sex trafficking, making it the largest anti-trafficking shelter in the world. Through her work through Prajwala, Dr Krishnan is making it possible for the government and citizens’ groups to manage jointly a range of protective and rehabilitative services for women and children who are survivors of human trafficking. For her humanitarian efforts, she has been recognised all over the world and has been bestowed numerous awards and accolades. The Government of India honoured her with the fourth highest civilian honour, the Padma Shree, in 2016.
“A few weeks back, a 14-year-old girl was rescued by our partner organisation, Justice & Care, in a brothel house near Hyderabad. During the rescue itself the team was shocked to note that the girl could hardly move and yet there was a customer in the cubicle when the rescue happened. As soon as the victim was admitted in our shelter for rehabilitation, we had to shift her to the hospital as she was very sick and could barely walk. In the hospital we found out that practically all her organs were malfunctioning and both her kidneys had already failed. The child eventually died after 10 days. I am yet to come to terms with the impunity of such human beings who have no qualms to trade a dying child or buy sex from a dying child. This attitude bordering dehumanisation, to me, is the root of many such crimes. I’ve come to realise that law alone cannot change things until the change comes from within each and every one of us. We need to value the human body and start respecting boundaries.”
Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry
Today, sex trafficking in women and children is one of the fastest growing areas of national and international criminal activity. It is a multi-billion dollar industry and has created complex criminal networks – at times, with the patronage of those in power. Lack of suitable implementation of laws and law enforcement machinery add to the problem.
Sex trafficking has become a matter of urgent concern today worldwide. In India alone, over 2 lakh women and children are inducted into the flesh trade every year. According to various estimates, India has about 3 million sex workers, most of whom are children. One of every four victims rescued from prostitution is a child, and 60% of these children are HIV positive. Each year, some two million women and children, many younger than 10 years old, are bought and sold around the globe.
As Prajwala itself aptly describes, sex trafficking not only results in a severe violation of human rights but also causes adverse physical, psychological and moral consequences for the victims. All hopes and dreams of a better life are shattered and over time the girls become penniless, mentally broken, and affected with serious or life-threatening illnesses such as HIV/AIDS. The journey of sex trafficking destroys the body, mind and soul of a victim, and fundamentally takes away her capacity to trust herself or anyone around her. The damage done is deep-rooted and often irreversible, as the sense of rejection, betrayal, and numbness that a trafficked women or girl goes through makes her lose faith in humanity.
“I think we need to redirect our attention from the women to the men,”
Sunitha Krishnan has always been aspiring and striving towards making India – and the world – free of sex trafficking. Due to Prajwala’s grassroots work she knows the challenges that the anti-trafficking brigade faces. “The main problem,” she told The Logical Indian, “is the attitude of people. Until you stop looking at a woman’s body as something that can be bought, sex trafficking will never end. There are many issues. The main issue is the men who are willing to pay for sex, the men who are willing to satisfy their libido by paying for a child. That attitude, that bodies can be used and thrown, that attitude scares me.”
Sunitha Krishnan believes that as long as we don’t work with our men and boys, sex trafficking will not end. “Something has gone seriously wrong in how are we bring up our sons. There are boys who are 20 or 25 years old who go to brothels to buy sex. Then there are 70-year-old men who looks at their 5-year-old grandchildren as potential objects to have sex with. There is something seriously wrong. I think we need to redirect our attention from the women to the men. We need to talk about how we can change the attitude of men. Every time a Nirbhaya happens, everybody talks about apps for women safety, about the importance of pepper sprays, about martial arts for women – this only passively fosters a regressive attitude towards women and girls. Such overly victim-oriented thinking is never solution-oriented. It only leads to more paranoia and more regressive attitude. By shifting our focus towards men and boys, we are moving in the right direction.”
We need new, novel, unique reforms and outlooks
Sunitha Krishnan advocates for a more reformed reaction towards sexual abuse, one that redirects focus from the victim to the perpetrator. “Take, for example,” she said, “the ‘Anti-Romeo Squads’ initiated by the new CM of Uttar Pradesh. While I think it’s incorrectly named, the idea itself is an interesting point of view. Eve-teasers are sex offenders. UP’s experiment is an interesting approach in my view; whether the execution is correct or wrong is debatable. If the police are sensitised and the scheme is made efficient, public spaces can indeed be made safer. The programme focuses on men, which shows a different strain of thinking – one where perpetrators will think that they will be publicly shamed, they will be publicly arrested and jailed if they indulge in eve teasing. This sort of view is the need of the hour.”
“For centuries we have directed our preventive measures towards women: if you are abused you have to hide your face, you have to change the way you dress, you have to go in hiding, you have to live with shame all your life, you will have nightmares for your life. This sort of thinking has been indoctrinated in us. We need new thinking: the perpetrator will be the one who is ashamed, the one who will be punished, the one who will have nightmares all his life. Such preemptive methods are interesting and crucial; such experimentation is vital.”
How can the media help NGOs like Prajwala?
The Logical Indian asked Dr Krishnan how the media could help activists such as herself and NGOs like Prajwala. She gave three pointers:
- “One has to understand and empathise that any person who has gone through pain and violation does not deserve to be victimised further – least of for a story. A certain degree of empathy has to be exercised. In the name of projecting a story, a lot of damage can be done to the victim, especially by making the story all about her. It is much better to shed light on the perpetrator. If not, everybody will be talking about Nirbhaya but nobody will be aware of the people who committed the crime. The way a media outlet tells a story – and I don’t like to use the word sensationalism – should be one that does not victimise the person further. Never victimise the victim.“
- “The second thing is to start an alternate discourse on how men and women should deal with such situations and people. And constantly create this populism around progressive approaches that can harmonise gender relations. The media has to become the initiation point for alternate thinking. We talk about patriarchal conditions and behaviours. The media has the power to become the initiator and facilitator of an alternate thinking, it would aid society in tackling such patriarchal behaviours. This starts from, say, advertisements that objectify women being replaced by advertisements that champion egalitarian. The discourse should be changed.“
- “The media should not be a stooge of anybody. They should be independent and autonomous. They cannot become spokespersons for political parties or corporates. Media becoming a sounding board for the wrong thinking is, to me, akin to a criminal offence. The media – print, electronic, and social – should maintain a very strong ethical dimension.”
The role education has to play
Sunitha Krishnan opines that – in India – literacy has not resulted in education. She says, “We have this notion that those who know English or science are educated. That is not always the case. People who are highly literate could be ones who reinforce the caste system or the ones who indulge in dowry harassment. In fact, a lot of the female foeticide that happens in India takes place in highly literate families. We have the largest number of uneducated literates in our country. A PhD or a Master’s degree doesn’t make you educated. It is important that we redefine literacy programmes to become education programmes in our country. The need of the hour is to reform our system right from pre-school. We need to ideate and find ways to change our literacy system to make it into an education system.”
“I have always believed that we are what we are by the choices we make. All of us face some or other form of adversity in our lives; what we make of such adverse situations decides how our future will shape out. If we allow adversity to defeat us, then we are defeated. But if we look at adversity as an opportunity and harness all our energies in that direction, we may not only change our own lives for the better but also the people around us. However we live, I hope none of us will continue one of the criminal acts that we have been committing for centuries – like remaining silent when we hear about a sex crime. Let us once and for all understand that in our silence we are party to encouraging and creating an ambience of impunity for sex offenders. Let us speak out, let us protest, let us not be party to promoting a crime that destroys the lives of millions of our women and children.”