She sets the bonded free

Break the culture of silence, says Sunitha Krishnan, who has — for more than 15 years — been rescuing and rehabilitating sex workers and their children.

July 30, 2011 04:07 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 09:29 pm IST

Sunitha Krishnan. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan.

Sunitha Krishnan. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan.

Sunitha Krishnan's organisation, Prajwala, for rescue and rehabilitation of sex workers and their children, has shown impressive results in the 15 years of its operation. With 4,636 girls rescued, 786 girls married, 6,000 children prevented and 8 million people sensitised, the humility and modesty of this brave woman is apparent in the fact that in her eyes, her biggest achievement is putting a smile on her girls' faces.

Fifteen-year-old Malini was taken from Vijaywada to Vizag by a relative with the promise of a job. Sold for Rs.1.5 lakhs to a brothel house, her dark journey in the world of sexual slavery had begun. With each customer paying Rs. 6,000, she had a daily target of Rs. 50,000. After three failed attempts to run away, she was finally rescued by Sunitha Krishnan's team in Prajwala and brought to Hyderabad in 2003. Rescuing women from the clutches of prostitution and preventing their second generation from the same fate, is what Sunitha Krishnan has devoted her life to.

Right from school

Social work and Sunitha go a long way back, when she started teaching dance to mentally retarded children by the time she was eight, and running schools in slums when she was 12. Her life took a different turn when she was gang-raped at the age of 16. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, she chose to face the wrath of her family and society by refusing to act like a victim, which ironically gave her the first push in the direction that now consumes her. “I realised then what sexual violence actually means; I understood the trauma, the isolation and the ostracisation that haunts you. That's when I decided that this is the world I want to deal with. Initially, it was anyone who was sexually violated, but gradually, I concretised that the prostitutes, who have been for centuries subjected to sexual slavery, are who I want to work with.”

Her first rescue operation of a 13-year-old mentally retarded child was accomplished with the help of three prostitutes, and Sunitha Krishnan got her first taste of partnership and of what making the victims the main stakeholders in any intervention could mean. She worked on the same principle of working in coalition with the survivors, to start a school for the children of the victims on their suggestion after a large-scale eviction. Rising from a small brothel in Mehboob ki Mehendi area of Hyderabad, Prajwala was thus started on the solid foundation of partnership, and it remains the pivot on which the organisation works.

The mechanism of partnership extends beyond victims. Having been beaten up 14 times, losing one eardrum, seeing a co-worker murdered in front of her eyes, Sunitha learnt the hard way that she could not fight this battle alone, and adopting a holistic approach including the police, the judiciary, and the other stakeholders was the only option. Today, rescue missions are carried out together with the police. The path being no way easy, her feet were firmly grounded, and ego kept aside at a very early stage. “My biggest strength has been in realising that in this whole effort, I am not a saviour, but just a facilitator. My larger role lies only in ensuring that there is a synergy among the stakeholders, which means that I opt for lesser recognition. We rescue hundreds of girls in a month, but never allow the media to come at all. We ensure that it's the police who address the media, while we just take the victims and move out of the place. That way, we do not encroach on the rights of the police, while we get the trust and faith of the victims, as they don't see me as a media-hungry person. This also quietly starts the process of recovery.”

In any rescue operation, the planning behind the scenes becomes the most important aspect. Ali, the director for rescue operations, says, “We are very impressed with Sunitha's planning and organisation skills. In rescue, things have to be well planned both among us and with the police, as it can be very dangerous if something goes wrong. Before every operation, she discusses everything with us, takes suggestions from us and guides us in our respective activities.”

Even in the process of initiation into society, Sunitha trusts her workers, and guides them from behind the scenes. Intensive trauma care, the first step after rescue, is spearheaded by survivors who are the first contact for the rescued victims. Sunitha goes a step further and helps the survivors get trained in one of many fields: Housekeepers, security guards, patient support attenders, laundry staff and camera assistants and then helps them secure a job. Prajwala has also started its own factory, and more than 180 girls are employed in unconventional capacities like welding, carpentry, masonry, etc.

Children's education

A simultaneous and a very important process that goes on is taking care of the education and welfare of the children of the victims. Prajwala runs 18 schools or transition centres across Hyderabad, to ensure that the children of the victims get a chance at normal life.

The warehouse of energy and optimism that she is, her enthusiasm easily rubs off on those around her as well. Deepa Xavier, former co-worker, says, “Working with Sunitha is like a constant learning experience, with her constantly throwing challenges, urging staff to tap their potential. She not only monitors but also mentors her staff in all spheres of work and life. Her undying hope, passion, relentless struggle to reach goals set for herself and for Prajwala (actually synonymous) inspires the team to stay focused on the cause too.”

Chandra, co-ordinator for second generation, says, “It is very inspiring to see Sunitha work with so much conviction. Working with her, we have also become addicted to our work.”

What gives her the inner strength to carry on is her genuine compassion and understanding. “Compassion for the victims, which drives her to fight against all odds, including risking her life is Sunitha's biggest strength. It is perhaps this passion that comes out every time she speaks (at different forums) that has taken the voice of the voiceless victims to hitherto untouched sections of society,” says Deepa.

Tales of her compassion come forth from other colleagues as well. “A lot of our girls are HIV positive, and some die after we bring them here. The burial ground staff always create problems for us on the grounds of caste and community, and left to them, they wouldn't let the girls have peace even after death. Sunitha has courageously fought with them on such occasions, and takes up the onus of the rites after death for these girls,” says Sujatha, director for shelter.

She has even volunteered for community services during bandhs following communal riots.

Needless to say, the challenges Sunitha faces are manifold, and she fights them every working day. The whole world of the flesh trade perpetrators is a big challenge, who stages a lot of threats and drama regularly. Next are the people who are supposed to be the stakeholders, like a section of the police and the judiciary. On one hand, there is a certain amount of connivance; on the other, its absolute ignorance and lack of understanding of the problem. The next challenge is to get people to work for the organisation, in a field which is so fantastically unglamorous and even dangerous. Raising financial support is next.

Every day, for the past 15 years, has been a new struggle. “But the biggest challenge in my view, is the attitude of the people. After all the efforts we put in to rescue these girls, our hearts break when society refuses to accept them. It's not only the lower or middle class that have this attitude problem; it very much includes the literate and the so-called high class people. When I was looking to rent a place for a shelter, the people in any locality wouldn't let us, saying that they didn't want ‘this kind of girls' in their area.”

Despite all the hardships, Prajwala today is able to find entry points for its trained girls. “Slowly, we see a shift happening, and corporate houses are starting to understand what we are saying. They employ our girls, with confidentiality agreements, in a pure partnership — they need people and we provide them,” says Sunitha.

The attitude of stakeholders, especially the police and judiciary, has changed a lot. From a team that never believed in the police, they are today the strongest police partners, with more than 8,000 policemen across the country trained in anti-trafficking units.

Working without a break for 18 years, Sunitha Krishnan has made a mark; the State has started taking her opinions and suggestions seriously, and the Women and Child Welfare Board has incorporated many of her suggestions in their policies.

Not only India, they are now able to influence policies in other countries like Cambodia and the US where their expertise is sought in various aspects like running a shelter, or understanding the whole concept of victim centric approaches, and most importantly, the economic rehabilitation that they have been able to bring about. They have proven that rehabilitation is a reality, provided there is a holistic approach.

Her message to society is, “break your culture of silence. This tolerance to violence and to sexual slavery has to go. The day we can create a zero tolerance society and break our silence on all forms of sexual violence will be the day we can see social transformation.”

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