Sunitha Krishnan: A Guiding Light in Activism and Hope
Sunitha Krishnan, born in 1972, stands as a stalwart Indian social activist, channelling unwavering dedication into the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration of victims ensnared in sex trafficking. Her life’s work has been nothing short of extraordinary, and her steadfast battle against human trafficking, coupled with her tireless commitment to the welfare of victims, has garnered numerous accolades and awards, including the prestigious Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in 2016.
A Childhood Rooted in Service
Krishnan’s venture into social work commenced at a remarkably young age in Bangalore. Her father’s work for the Department of Survey took her to different parts of the country, exposing her to diverse communities. At just eight years old, she began teaching dance to mentally challenged children, sparking her passion for social work. By the age of twelve, she was establishing schools for underprivileged children in slums.
However, tragedy struck at fifteen when Krishnan became a victim of gang rape during her work on a neo-literacy campaign for the Dalit community. This traumatic incident, highlighting the challenges faced by women in India, left her partially deaf in one ear. This harrowing experience served as a catalyst for her life’s mission, propelling her to combat the forces that jeopardise the safety and dignity of women.
Krishnan’s educational journey took her to Central Government Schools in Bangalore and Bhutan, eventually earning her a Bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore. She furthered her academic pursuits, completing her Master of Social Work (MSW) with a specialisation in medical and psychiatric social work from Roshni Nilaya, Mangalore.
The Birth of Prajwala: A Lifelong Dedication
Krishnan’s path led her to Hyderabad, where she joined the People’s Initiative Network (PIN) as the Coordinator for a program empowering young women. Here, she became deeply involved in addressing housing issues faced by slum dwellers along the Musi River. Krishnan actively protested against the demolition of homes in these marginalised communities, championing their rights to shelter and dignity.
In 1996, the lives of sex workers in Hyderabad’s Mehboob ki Mehandi, a red-light area, underwent a transformative change. These women were evacuated, rendering them homeless. Collaborating with Brother Jose Vetticatil, a missionary, Sunitha Krishnan established a transition school at the vacated brothel to prevent the second generation from falling into prostitution. During Prajwala’s early years, Krishnan displayed remarkable determination, even selling her jewellery and household items to support the cause.
Under Krishnan’s leadership, Prajwala operates on five pillars: prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration, and advocacy. The organisation provides comprehensive support to victims, addressing their moral, financial, legal, and social needs, while tirelessly working to ensure the prosecution of perpetrators.
Today, Prajwala stands as the world’s largest anti-trafficking shelter, having rescued, rehabilitated, or served over 12,000 survivors of sex trafficking. Its holistic approach tackles the root causes of trafficking and supports survivors throughout their recovery.
A Life Devoted to Service
Sunitha Krishnan’s impact extends beyond her work with Prajwala. She not only leads the organisation but also heads an economic rehabilitation program that imparts vocational skills such as carpentry, welding, printing, masonry, and housekeeping to survivors. As an activist, educator, and mentor, Krishnan inspires her team to stay dedicated to their shared mission.
Krishnan volunteers full-time for Prajwala, supporting herself, with assistance from her husband, by writing books and delivering speeches and seminars on trafficking globally. Married to Rajesh Touchriver, an Indian filmmaker and collaborator with Prajwala on films raising awareness about trafficking, Krishnan balances her activism with advocacy through different mediums.
A Champion of Policy and Legal Advocacy
Krishnan’s involvement transcends rescue and rehabilitation; she actively participates in policy-making and legal advocacy. She played a crucial role in formulating recommendations for the rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims in Andhra Pradesh, contributing to the enactment of the Policy for Rescue & Rehabilitation of Victims of Trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation.
In 2011, Krishnan served as an advisor for the Government of Kerala’s Nirbhaya policy, aimed at combating sexual violence and trafficking. Despite initial challenges, her efforts contributed to coordinating multiple government departments and NGOs. Frustrated by the lack of political will to implement the policy, Krishnan resigned but was later re-inducted with more decision-making power in March 2015.
Krishnan’s efforts also extend to awareness campaigns and advocacy in the United States. She launched the “Men Against Demand” campaign, advocating “Real Men Don’t Buy Sex,” reaching a vast global audience. Additionally, she spearheaded the first statewide campaign against sex trafficking targeting adolescent girls, collaborating with various international funding agencies.
The Power of Media
Sunitha Krishnan leverages the power of media to amplify her message. Her impactful speech during a TED India conference in 2009 has inspired millions globally. Her appearance on Aamir Khan’s television show, “Satyamev Jayate,” played a pivotal role in securing significant funds and business collaborations for job placements for survivors.
Krishnan conducts sensitisation workshops for senior police officers, judges, prosecutors, and Child Welfare Committee members, equipping them with the understanding and skills needed to combat human trafficking and advocate for child-friendly courts.
Film as a Tool for Advocacy
In her early career, Krishnan ventured into filmmaking as a potent advocacy tool. She conceptualised and scripted 14 documentary films on socially relevant issues, garnering international recognition and awards. Collaborating with filmmaker Vineeth Sreenivasan resulted in the Malayalam movie “Thira,” inspired by her life story. Her notable achievement in film is “Naa Bangaaru Talli,” winning several international awards and National Awards in India.
Research and Publications
Krishnan’s dedication to research is evident in her collaboration with Bro Jose Vetticatil, conducting action research and publishing “The Shattered Innocence.” This document sheds light on inter-state trafficking from Andhra Pradesh to other states, revealing the gravity of the crime and the vulnerable communities affected. She has also authored books and manuals providing guidance for caregivers, counsellors, and communities dealing with issues like sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and women’s empowerment.
Overcoming Adversity and Rising to the Challenge
Sunitha Krishnan has faced numerous threats and physical assaults throughout her journey, enduring 14 physical attacks and regular death threats. Yet, her unflinching resolve to continue her crusade against human trafficking, coupled with her unwavering commitment to the cause, has only strengthened her determination to make a difference.
Krishnan’s influence transcends borders, bringing about significant change in the fight against trafficking. She was appointed as a member of the Andhra Pradesh State Women’s Commission and contributed to India’s new Bill on Rape, which increased punitive measures for sexual violence and assault.
Awards and Honors
Krishnan’s dedication and impact were recognised through numerous awards and honours, including the Padma Shri in 2016 and various international accolades. These honours reflect the immense respect and admiration for her tireless efforts to combat sex trafficking and her unwavering dedication to improving the lives of survivors.
Sunitha Krishnan’s life is a testament to the power of unwavering determination, compassion, and the belief that one person can make a profound difference in the world. Her work with Prajwala and her advocacy have changed the lives of thousands of women and children, offering them a second chance at life and the hope for a brighter future. Sunitha Krishnan’s story is one of resilience, courage, and the relentless pursuit of justice for those who have suffered at the hands of human traffickers. Her legacy is an enduring source of inspiration for all who strive for positive change in the world.