At the age of 24, Sunitha Krishnan founded Prajwala, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates victims of sex trafficking. The NGO now has become the largest anti-trafficking shelter in the world, with 300 employees, 17 schools and medical care units for its HIV-positive residents. Krishnan’s team has provided more than 15,000 victims with counseling, medical treatment and jobs. Women rehabilitated by the program have found employment as masons, printers, tailors, managers, and carpenters. Krishnan still works at Prajwala as a full time volunteer and received the Yudhvir Foundation Memorial Award on April 30th, 2015.
One word – Human
One sentence – A person who likes to take one moment at a time and lives every moment, does not believe in a tomorrow.
I don’t even know whether I am a professional. I am unable to classify myself into a profession. I could be a crusader for many, an activist for some, I could be a radical, socialist, feminist for many, but more than that I am trying to be a human. One who responds to everything that she feels is unjust, and whether that makes me a professional fighter, I don’t know but definitely it is not an ad-hoc fight. One understands professionalism as something that requires skills, training, planning and strategizing, I am all of that.
I take pride in the fact that I am a full time volunteer at Prajwala. So, all though there are no monetary gains that I am expecting, there are other gains that I demand. My biggest gain is the contentment and fulfillment that I get, I demand. So I don’t see any big difference between me and somebody else who is working for money. They are pursuing for materialistic gains, and I am pursuing for spiritual gains. Both are pursuing. So I am no less self-centered, no less selfish than any other human.
I come from a lower middle class family. I come from a background where there was not so much, it wasn’t less but nothing was in excess. It was just enough. But, I also come from a unique experience – I was born disabled! My leg was turned behind. And therefore my leg was in a cast the first few years of my life. What I heard from my mom and everybody else around me was that there was a lot of pain and inconvenience because I required physiotherapy everyday. It was a significant phase of my life and everybody talks about it and tells me that I never used to cry. The nurses, doctors, people used to wince at a little leg being turned this way and my mom used to cry and I used to console everyone. I used to say, this is for my good, don’t worry. As I grew up, by the age of 3 or 4, I started behaving differently. I used to collect other disabled children in my neighborhood. My dad had given me a slate and I used to teach all the children in my neighborhood what I learnt at the daycare center that I went to. And before I knew, I had gained a big reputation of helping others.
I was a universal advisor to my parents; practically, I would advise every adult on what was right/wrong. I was never a child, never behaved like one. And very early in my life I valued my identity very strongly. It came naturally. I remember in my school, because of the way I used to behave, teachers used to praise me and say that I was like Mother Teresa. I used to get very offended. I used to snub back and say I am not Mother Teresa. I am Sunitha. I hated being compared with anyone. I have no competition with anyone. If there is a competition, it is with myself – to better myself. I was also very clever. Clever as of cunning. I knew my deficiencies very well. I knew I was very short and petite and therefore I started making up for it.
A comment once made by my father strongly influenced me. He said “your lack of height is your height”. Therefore I never looked at anyone else. The looking in was always inside me. What are the strengths I have that can be optimized? I knew I could speak well; I was good at debates, acting, mono acting, extempore speaking. Anything and everything related to speaking. I stayed away from sports. None of the ‘nots’ made me feel as if I was less. Although I was a butt of joke for people around me, somehow the feeling I had when someone made fun of me was that of pity towards them. It was a very holier than thou stance – I really don’t know whether that was my destiny, but I knew very early on that I am for people. That’s my destiny. In what way and what form, I don’t know. So I don’t remember a day out of my 43 years that I have not done what I am doing right now.
And then one incident changed my direction. It gave me better directions. Till then, I was involved in rural literacy, poverty. It was not until I was sexually assaulted that I found my direction. I am what I am as a result of the combination of choices that I have made. Everything in my life is a result of the personal choice I have made. I chose not to feel like a victim. I chose to direct my energies to a mission that will reach out to other victims. Today, whatever I am has nothing to do with – “somehow it happened”. I made choices. When the time came, I chose Social welfare as my subject over Environmental Science. One of the things I understand better today and I say it strongly – you are what you are because of the choices you make. You want to be a loser, you will be a loser. You want to feel isolated you will feel isolated. And believe me, the universe will conspire to make that happen. Everything is within you. The power to control ourselves is within us. The power to chalk our destiny, define our destiny is all within us. But the fundamental fact is that you have to know yourself well. You have to be closely in touch with yourself. The only human being I know very well is myself. And that is not today, it’s always been like this. I knew my weaknesses earlier on as child. As I grew up I kept honing my strengths. I also understood that there are areas that I am not able to perform well – for example I can’t work for salary. It doesn’t make me happy. It makes me feel very shrunk in a space. But I respect others who like it.
I believe anybody can do the work I am doing. Every choice has its consequences. When you chose to fight the mafia, obviously you are making a choice to get beaten up by them. You can’t say I want to fight the mafia but stay safe. Every choice has its preparations. You have to build your capacities and pay a price for it. If people are willing to do that, what stops them from becoming Sunitha Krishnan or anyone else?
On Victims of Sexual Violence
I don’t think my talking about my rape will help other victims. It’s an overstretched subject. It’s been 26 years and people don’t let go. People get bothered about talking because once you have talked, others will not let it go. Any body from the media will never allow me to get past it. That is what the fear is. Therefore disclosing a violation of sexual nature need not be a public proclamation and that is what I would like to tell anybody. You don’t need to tell the public, but you need to tell yourself. You need to fight your woes, resolve it within yourself. If you can resolve it by talking with others so be it. If you can resolve it without talking, that is also fine. You don’t need to come to public forums and speak about it, Disclosure is about coming to terms with yourself and understanding that you are not at fault. You don’t need to hide your face, feel ashamed or feel guilty for a crime that you have not committed. You find your way of coming to terms with it. Many women do that by filing cases, it’s a sense of justice they get, and many others don’t and yet find peace. The problem lies with those who shrivel with shame and guilt and hold it inside them. To those people I would say – you are harming yourself by feeling guilty for the crime you have not committed. So lets start fixing that.
Victimizing a victim is a global phenomenon, it happens everywhere. Today you have a choice. You can either get carried away with what people talk or live with the person you want to live with. So I think it’s high time that women empower themselves and stop finding gratification in other people’s eyes. Why do you seek certificates in other people’s eyes? Who has the moral authority to certify your character? You decide what you are, your character, your integrity and your morality. Today, in 2015 it’s possible.Maybe in 1955 it was not. My mother might not have had that choice but this generation definitely does– use it.
It’s very difficult to say that the hardships have ended. I would not call them hardship but rather opportunities. At different stages of my life, I faced various levels of challenges. And as you go by your journey, the face of the challenges changes. At the beginning of the journey everything is from scratch. Coming from a lower middle class background I did not have the finances or the support. I had a masters degree, but no money. That meant selling whatever I had on me, my little pieces of gold that I was wearing. To start an organization and build it up has had its own challenges at every level. In the beginning, I was not making any impact, that is one kind of a challenge, but when I started making impact, the challenges changed. Once things started moving, the mafia started to feel that this lady is hurting us, and then financial challenges came combined with physical challenges. I was intimidated and beaten up. Today, I have come to a stage where I have challenges from the State and the System, which doesn’t feel comfortable when you are working towards bringing change.
Whether the challenges I faced 20 years ago were bigger than the challenges today, I don’t know. At that time they appeared big. Right now, I am facing eviction from some of my building. I am running around to find someone to give me some land. I can’t even buy it. I don’t have that kind of purchasing power. I can’t rent a place because no one wants to rent their space to me. In spite of all the wonderful recognitions I have in the world, at the ground level, I am as isolated as ever, then and now. Now this looks big, but five years later, maybe this also will look small.
It’s all about how you view things and the choices you make. To me all of this is a great opportunity. You put forth the question before me as a problem. For me it’s not a problem. I rephrased it for you and called it challenges. But personally it’s an opportunity to bring real change forever, to really shape the evil minds that conspire to hurt women and children. As my voice grows, it’s a greater opportunity for me to hit where it hurts the most. Strength is not something that I am going to buy from someone else. Its within me! You will get depleted only if you feel it’s a burden in your life. I don’t feel it’s a burden in my life. I don’t know what I would do if I did not have all this work in my life. Suppose the mafia was not hurting me, I would feel very bad. I would actually feel very bad because then, I would start doubting my work. I am destroying someone’s business and if he is happy about it and not hurting me then there is something seriously wrong. So little challenges are an indicator of your strengths.
There are times, when incidences and instances suck you down. Especially when you see a three-year-old child raped or multiple abuses on a very small child. Those are moments when you are sucked down and in those times it’s the smile of the children I have brought out that makes it all better. One look at them and I feel if they can go through all that pain and still love, I can too. Because they have no reason to trust me, yet they trust me. Yet they talk to me, they believe in me and believe that I will bring some change in their life. If they can be so generous to forgive, forget and move along why not us. So, I am not saying it’s all hunky dory in terms of your emotions. There are definitely moments where you feel very low.
In your limited world, whether you are a professional or not, you find the space to respond, react, do things. I don’t think everyone needs to be a Martin Luther King Jr. But in your limited ways do something. Everyone has a Facebook page, what stops you from reporting. It’s an anonymous medium. Why are you not able to report abuse?
When I started #ShameTheRapistCampaign I found more than 16,000 pages of pornography! I am not talking about pedophile pages. What stops people from reporting these people/pages? People don’t understand that their silence generates demand. When you are too busy and preoccupied and you just want to remain silent, you are actually the problem then. You are as much culpable in the crime as anyone else. Then, you don’t have the right to complain. By that standard a very significantly large number of people have no right to open their mouths. They just keep quiet and take what they are getting. Because if you want change you have to make it happen, no one from another planet is going to come and make it happen for us.
If we all collectively don’t make that effort and remain consistent and persistent, then change will not happen. If people believe that one Sunitha Krishnan is going to bring change, it will not happen. It’s important that you be the change that you want to see in little ways. But it also means that you sustain change when you see the change.
If you see someone working then, even if you are not able to directly work, you conspire to ensure that he/she works. That is one of the biggest challenges I face. It’s bad enough that you don’t do anything, but then you don’t allow me also to do anything. When I don’t get a house to rent, it’s a deliberate effort on your part to not do anything about it and to stop me also from bringing that change.
So I feel there are two ways that any human being can respond; one is in their own little way. Whenever you see things, respond in whatever way you can, with your family, with your children, with your life. But much more than that, at least publicly stand up for people doing things that will bring change. You know, when a mafia is standing in front of me and they see Sunitha Krishnan and then they see 1000s of people behind Sunitha Krishnan, they think twice before touching me. And that is something that doesn’t require too much of an effort from people’s end. Please support. The problem is, people only imagine change, but they don’t want to see the change. They don’t believe that they can see the change. For anything, if you don’t believe in it, it won’t happen.
On Sex-trafficking & legalizing prostitution
Sex-trafficking is the worst form of sex crime and its connected to an organized crime. To me amongst all the sex crimes I dealt with, I felt this deserved more attention and prioritization. A sex crime for the heck of sex crime is one thing. But a sex crime done from an angle of commercial exploitation has completely different ramifications.
I believe that prostitution is the oldest form of sexual slavery and that women will never be empowered till prostitution doesn’t end. I also believe that the state and system is accountable for that. Therefore the state and the system is duty bound to create alternatives so that there is an exit from prostitution. No woman, no child deserves that existence.
The state failed in protecting these women and therefore it’s for the state to change. I don’t believe in legalizing prostitution. Because I believe that the damages of prostitution does not end with legalizing it. The damage it does to a body continues to be the same. Just because a girls gets a license, does not mean that the damages on her body have reduced. Legalizing is not the answer. But the state has to create a support system. Just banning prostitution cannot be the answer, it has to be done correctly and strategically with the right options.
On women’s safety in India
Violence against women, especially rape is caused because of the attitude of men and women. Its high time we start working with men and boys and start tackling what is this unlimited libido that they suffer from. Anybody that they see is a body for them to devour, make a comment, touch, molest, or rape? What is that unlimited, unrestrained libido? We need to start questioning that. We need to start questions on the extraordinary mental access and legitimacy that we have given to men about their boundaries that they think is their right. Many young boys who indulge in eve teasing have the audacity to say something like – she asked for it. Who gives them the right to decide, did she say that?
Its not just about men, it’s also about women and how they view themselves and their own bodies. Why are you (women) so insecure about your body parts? What is that insecurity that drives you to invest so much on your skin, nose, and body and then where is the boundary in your own mind? To me it’s all about how we view ourselves and how men view us. As much as I stress on talking to men and boys I also stress on talking to women about their fundamental views of themselves and their understanding of their bodies.
On change and what we can do
I don’t think change is impossible, even if the state is not interested, the civil society is. We are fighting a lot of battles with the Supreme Court and in the next 1-2 years you will see results. And therefore I do see change in the next 10 years.
Change starts with every family, every parent, within your own house. There is no other way. Yes there is a wave of awareness on violence against women, dialogues have started and a lot of other cosmetic changes have happened in India but on the ground nothing has changed. Today there is better visibility of the problem, better legislation, better reporting, but has the crime come down? Has the impunity of the offenders come down? Unfortunately, all that is the same. We have a long way to go. Half a step at a time.
Pursue relentlessly. This cannot be a story that you respond to just one day. This is a centuries old crime and requires another century or so to change it. We need people who can consistently work on it. If you give up then things won’t change. You have to continue and pursue in spite of the failures, believing that one-day things will change.
On an empowered woman
I feel each one of us has the capacity to be an empowered woman. It’s not about being an empowered woman; it’s about being an empowered person. Man or Woman. Again, we have a choice to make that happens for ourselves and you cannot be born with it. You have to work for it, fight for it, consistently be on it. Empowerment is not a one time capsule, it’s an ongoing journey.
A message for our readers related to personal safety
Personal safety is not just about physical defense; it’s about the strength of your character, about your mental state, your mind and your own convictions. Please invest a lot of time in building your inner strength and character. It will help you face anything in the world, including fighting back. A lot is in your hand and if you give up, the world gives up on you. Invest in yourself and understand that you have an extraordinary reserve of power that has to be harnessed by you. For that you need to look within you, don’t go around depending on other people, your husband father, mother or brother. See that power inside you!
Sunitha Krishnan, Ph.D., Founder and Director of Prajwala or “an eternal flame” (a non-profit anti-trafficking organization), is an eminent anti trafficking activist internationally known for her fight against girl child trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. Dr. Krishnan has been playing a major role in the rescue, restoration, rehabilitation and reintegration of survivors of trafficking through Prajwala
Dr. Krishnan has committed her life as a full-time volunteer at Prajwala since it’s inception in 1996. A mental health professional, she has done extensive research and is essentially a field practitioner. She has been instrumental in rescuing hundreds of children from severely abusive conditions and restoring childhood to them. Among other things, Prajwala’s interventions include a home for children rescued from sexually abusive situations – this is a place of physical and mental healing for the children. Ninety percent of the children are HIV+ and Sunitha’s efforts include prolonging the life of these children in as healthy and normal conditions as possible. Apart from this, Prajwala also runs schools for the children of prostitutes in Hyderabad city. This is geared to prevent the next generation from inheriting their parent’s “profession” and to provide a safe space for children. Sunitha Krishnan is making it possible for India’s government and citizen organizations to manage jointly a range of protective and rehabilitative services for children who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.
Early in her career, Dr. Krishnan forayed into filmmaking as a tool for advocacy. She conceptualized and scripted 14 documentary films on socially relevant issues such as youth and HIV/AIDS, Sheikh marriages, incest, prostitution, sex trafficking, communal riots, among others.
Dr. Krishnan has been physically assaulted 14 times and she receives regular death threats. She says that these assaults have only steeled her resolve to carry on her crusade against human trafficking. Her life is an example of a life dedicated to creating a better world for trafficked persons. Prajwala began and continues with this mission. It is recognition of the dangers that make children vulnerable and an attempt to remove these dangers through sensitization and policy advocacy. To the 6,000 odd children in Prajwala’s home and the schools they run in the red light areas, Sunitha is the universal mother who is there for them at all times. Dr. Krishnan draws strength from her pain and anger, and channelizes it to the task at hand—which is to use every possible forum to shake society out of its complacency and tolerance of sexual exploitation. When asked what keeps her going, she doesn’t hesitate: I live for the smiles of the children I have rescued. I live for the hope in their eyes.