I don’t remember the rape part of it as much as I remember being angry. For two years I was ostracised, stigmatised and isolated because I was a victim. And that is what we do to all traffic survivors. We as a civil society, we have PhDs in victimising a victim.”
The Ted talk video shows a diminutive woman in a scarlet kurta whose deep, calm voice seethes with quiet fury as she goes on to narrate the story of another three-year-old who was gang-raped and left to die. Her words hit you with a force that shows the anger she has been talking about still lingers. Not just at the trauma she herself was put through at 15, but at this entire industry of sexual commercial exploitation which is shrouded in silence.
She received the Living Legends Award by Human Symphony Foundation in January this year, the Diller-von Furstenberg award in New York City in April and the Godfrey-Phillips National Amodini Award in May.
Meet Dr Sunitha Krishnan, the co-founder of Prajwala—an organisation that works to rescue trafficked women and children from a life of sexual slavery and violence.
Now in her early forties, Sunitha has risked her life on several occasions to stop this violence and rescue others. She can no longer hear from her right ear and recently underwent a surgery to fix the problem. This is because she has been beaten up numerous times while intervening to save lives. A staff member was also murdered right before her eyes. But threats and violence have failed to diminish her fierce drive to reach every woman with a message of hope and empowerment.
A survivor and a fighter, Sunitha rolled up her sleeves long back and decided to deal with the world just the way it was. She says finding joy and confidence is a key part of the recovery process. “Nobody can understand how hard a victim’s life is. I know exactly what it feels like. I can stand by them, give them love, fight for them and rehabilitate them,” she says.
Adored by the girls she has given a new life to, Sunitha says rehabilitation is the hardest bit. “It hurts me to think that this exploitation might never stop. There is just too much easy money in it,” she says. When one of the oldest red light areas of Hyderabad was evacuated in 1996, thousands of prostitutes found themselves displaced and homeless. To rehabilitate these families, Bro Jose Vetticatil and Sunitha started Prajwala as a small education initiative.
Today, apart from Astha Nivas, the children’s shelter, Prajwala has five day schools for the children of prostitutes in Hyderabad and a residential facility in the city called Asha Niketan, for rescued adult women. It has also helped other NGOs set up and run 17 day care centres for prostituted women’s children across Andhra Pradesh.
While the children at Astha Nivas and the day schools are educated up to the seventh standard and then transferred to private high schools, the older victims are trained in a number of useful skills ranging from bookbinding to masonry and welding. They are then placed with private companies or given a job at Prajwala Enterprises, a small-scale unit that mostly makes and sells stationery and furniture.
“Over the years, I have watched these women and girls make a difference and they’re self-replicating. We have trained young girls as welders, as carpenters, as printers, as bookbinders, as screen printers, as taxi drivers and auto drivers. We also train them as housekeepers to work in hotels and hospitals,” she says.
“Slowly, corporate houses are starting to employ our girls, albeit with confidentiality agreements,” she says. Prajwala has rescued more than 8,000 children and women so far and helps educate five thousand children infected with HIV/AIDS in Hyderabad.
“Locked up, abused and forced into sex, these women and girls are slaves. There is no other word for it. When they arrive at the centre, most of the girls need medical attention. Some of them have been tortured and most of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress,” she explains.
Finding fulfilment and purpose through her admirable, selfless work, Sunitha has left behind the demons of her past. Now as a happily married social worker, Sunitha wants to create public awakening to end this modern-day slavery and demand harsher punishments for perpetrators.
Sunitha is married to filmmaker Rajesh Touch river who has also made several films for Prajwala. One such film, Anamika, is now a part of the curricula of the Andhra Pradesh Police Academy and the National Police Academy.