Sunitha Krishnan: I was shocked; it took me days to digest it

Sunitha Krishnan. Photo: K.V.S. Giri  

Sunitha Krishnan walks up to the small garden area and rests her aching feet on a stool. It’s been a month since she fractured her leg. Work goes on, as always. She’s completed a meeting with the team that returned from the Swaraksha campaign in Telangana. The members are weather beaten but sport beaming smiles. She introduces them, and mentions how the ‘survivor leaders’ or her daughters as she fondly refers to them, connected with young women wherever they travelled. Prajwala has been organising awareness campaigns for years. But Swaraksha has helped step up the momentum, thanks to partnering with NGOs in different districts and the support given by US Consulate. “We’ve been able to reach out to six or seven thousand audience in each district,” says Sunitha.

At loggerheads

We have met to talk about her being conferred the Padma Shri. Did she know she was nominated? “I was shocked, it took me days to digest it,” she declares. “I don’t think the nomination came from the Telangana, Andhra or Kerala governments, with whom I’ve been working closely. My name must have come from the national search committee. I’ve been at loggerheads with the state and central governments for not doing enough to tackle sex trafficking. The predominant viewpoint is that I’m painting a bad image of the country. The number of victims is growing and when working in this area, one tends to find fault with the stakeholders — the government and the police — who have the mandate to fight the crime. It’s not a citizen’s fight, isn’t it?” she asks.

Name at stake

Ever since she set up Prajwala with Bro. Jose Vetticatil two decades ago, life hasn’t been easy. There is a constant threat to her and her staff from the underbelly. Last weekend, she learnt of touts posing as Prajwala members and demanding money from families of a few victims.

The effort to taint her organisation’s name is also not new. “We’ve been accused of kidnapping, illegal confinement and even lesbian abuse in our shelters. These are the weapons used by traffickers to hurt and discredit us in the court because they are aware that once the victims get our therapeutic intervention, they are courageous enough to testify in the court,” she says.

Sunitha mentions how she learnt from a police officer that until a few months ago, she herself was under scrutiny. “I had no clue. Apparently a few IAS officers felt I was all hogwash, spoke a lot but did little,” she says.

In this context, the Padma Shri adds credibility. She’s also amused. “Suddenly, I am someone’s classmate, someone’s cousin…” There was a time she was considered a disgrace to her family. Her father stood as a staunch support, her mother slowly understood her work and her elder sibling, who’d pray that she’d give up all this, came around after the announcement of the award.

She is happy at the recognition of the cause. “It gives us hope and strength. My daughter’s voices will be heard better now,” she says. Social work is not something she learnt to do from her ancestors. “I come from a lower middle class family, who were originally toddy tappers. Their world view didn’t extend beyond their families and basic requirements.”

What made her begin her fight against trafficking is well known. She preferred to fight rather than brood. “But it was a big disappointment for my family. They wondered what I was up to. If my mom stayed with me for a day, she’d lose her sleep for months thereafter. People call and threaten me. Someone even put my number on porn sites. My mom would be worried for me,” she recalls.

As she takes stock of the multiple areas of work — ‘shame the rapist campaign’, Swaraksha which she hopes will cover the entire nation in three years — she admits to a feeling of loneliness. “Is this going to be only our battle? How do we take this further? We’ve rescued 15,600 girls; that’s hardly a speck when we think of over three million women and children victims. The age of victims is getting lower and their economic profile is changing. Even middle class and upper middle class girls are victims, with the growth of social medium platforms. Our perceptions of trafficking and the methods to combat it need to be re-examined,” she explains.

Eviction and new space

The place where this conversation is taking place will close its doors to Prajwala soon. The team has been asked to move out. Sunitha is undeterred, looking forward to setting up a larger work space in the outskirts. “In the immediate aftermath of the threats to evict, I wanted to look for a small space. But my husband (filmmaker Rajesh Touchriver) urged me to think ahead and take a place that would meet the requirements as the organisation grows,” she says.

Rajesh Touchriver is her source of strength, and also someone who has prevented her from being cynical. “When you see a three year old victim of sex crime, you don’t get a good impression of men and tend to look at every man with caution. My father, husband and Bro. Jose Vetticatil are my three pillars. Rajesh is the wind beneath my wings. He keeps telling me to document my work so that it can help others to take this work forward,” she says.

Attack from within

The biggest threat to Prajwala came in 2014 when 21 people, posing as victims, infiltrated the organisation. This isn’t an NGO where anyone can walk in. Yet, she was taken by surprise with the methodical infiltration. “One fine morning, the infiltrators carried out attacks on others. It was brutal. Twenty eight of our girls were grievously injured and there was huge damage to property. We sought police help. I spent four days and nights talking to each one of my girls to understand how it had all happened,” she says. The memories of the attack remain fresh.

The strength to deal with such situations comes from her deep sense of spirituality and her ability to see the bright side of adversities. “My life in a providence; I am here for a purpose. If that episode hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have known that traffickers, who also happened to be trained MSW (master of social work) candidates, had crept into Prajwala. We revamped our security protocol.”

Sunitha works around 21 hours a day. She hasn’t gone on a vacation. She feels rejuvenated seeing the sense of purpose and happiness on the faces of rehabilitated victims. “Even if I go on a holiday, I’d probably have a blinkered vision and keep an eye out for traffickers,” she says.

Mills & Boon

The continuous fight against trafficking hasn’t made Sunitha turn away from the lighter side of life. Mills & Boon volumes find space in her laptop bag and she enjoys watching romantic comedies. “I love February, one gets to see Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Aniston rom-coms on TV,” she laughs. She’s also a film buff and discusses what she loved and what irked her about Airlift.

Cooking is another stress buster. She prefers cooking traditional Kerala delicacies in stone vessels and grinds the spices as well. Store-bought masalas and sambar podis won’t do.

Work wise, there’s a lot to do. She hopes the Organised Crime Investigating Agency will be set up by the Centre this year and a comprehensive legislation to fight trafficking will be in place. At a smaller level, Prajwala is in need of funds, but Sunitha has been very cautious in selecting her donors. “I don’t accept money from organisations that support legalisation of prostitution. I don’t accept money from those who’d want to come and have a look at our homes. This isn’t a tourist place. My daughters need their security,” she affirms.

This stance has earned her the label of being arrogant. “If my demeanour comes across as aloof and arrogant, I am happy with that,” she signs off.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 4:03:03 AM |

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