Meet our 2016 Global Leader, Sunitha Krishnan

Sunitha Krishnan is an Indian activist who has transformed her personal experience into an innovative institutionalized effort to rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate victims of sex trafficking into society. Since the age of 8 years, she has manifested an interest in social work, teaching mentally challenged children how to dance. And then going on to run underprivileged schools for children by the age of 12.

She is co-founder of Prajwala, an organization in Hyderabad (India) that works with victims of sexual abuse and trafficking, as well as their children. Earlier this year, Sunitha was awarded the Padma Shiyi, one of India’s most prestigious honors. More recently, she has been named a 2016 Tällberg Foundation Global Leader, along with Eleni Antoniadou, Christiana Figueres, Celina de Sola, and Thuli Madonsela. In that context, Sunitha recently shared her views about her life, her work and her future goals.

What is the driving force behind your work on anti-sex trafficking?

I think I can’t place one particular driving force. It is wrong for anybody to think that one particular incident in my life would be the driving force. At the age of 15 when I got gang raped, that gave me a firsthand idea about what it means to be isolated socially, ostracized {and} stigmatized. Therefore, it made me look at victims of sex crime and victims of sex trafficking from a different perspective. Till that time, I had not even looked at them as human beings who require that kind of an attention. That particular incident gave me the direction in terms of where I will go.

Over a period of time, that is not the driving force. Being on the frontline, witnessing the injustices, witnessing the entire unfairness with which victims are treated by the state, system, {and} society, that angers you, that drives you to keep moving forward. It’s not one. It’s my failure. It’s my success, both at the same time.

What does Prajwala mean? And how does Prajwala work with survivors of sex trafficking as core partners?

It’s called Pra and Jwala. There are two parts of that word which means eternal flame. Prajwala started with the eviction of the red light area called Mehboob ki Mehandi. Overnight there were these women who were shelterless, optionless and homeless. When I started talking to them, the initial thing they asked me to do was to cremate dead bodies, because there were many women who were committing suicide. Of course, that to me was a very important thing because that brought me very close to the women in a different plane.

When I started talking to them about what do we do next, they said, “You know, forget about us. Do something for our children.” I still remember this conversation with Brother Jose Vetticatil who was my co-founder at that time. The first response that Brother Jose said was something which was shocking for me: “If we have to do something about their children, they have to partner with us.” I was shocked and I was absolutely reluctant and hostile to this idea. I went back to the women and I sat with them and I said, “Listen, whatever we do, we do it with your partnership.” What was very shocking to me was at that time in the next 3 minutes, what unfolded before me was something that is still, even after 20 years, yet to digest. These women started removing all the things on their body — their bangles, anklet, nose ring, earrings and put it all in the front. This is our contribution, this is how we start. Today, 50% of my team consists of survivors.

Why did you choose to run Prajwala as a full-time volunteer and not as a staff?

I am a full-time volunteer in the organization. Apart from me, all others are full-time employees. I chose to be a volunteer because I thought that gives me better autonomy…I felt from the beginning that emotionally, spiritually physically, every way, I’m better off being a full-time volunteer.
 I don’t take any money that comes to Prajwala for me. I definitely have to do something every month to ensure that I am economically sustained outside Prajwala. It could be a speech that I give. It could be some writing, but I need to do something else. This is not my bread and butter.

In 2015, Amnesty voted to adopt a proposal for the full decriminalization of consensual sex work. Where do you stand in that debate and looking at the future, where do you see yourself and your organization going?

My position is very clear. I have not had any dual positions in my life. I’m absolutely anti-trafficking and an anti-legalization person. I believe prostitution is the oldest form of sexual slavery and I don’t endorse the term sex work because in my country at least, there’s no legally acceptable term. There’s no term called as sex work as per the legal norms. I not only avoid that term, but I don’t endorse that term in any form.

I see my journey today far more in a position of negotiation in terms of I’m able to negotiate with the world and with the state and the system far better today than I was 20 years back. I hope one day I can close my shop. I hope one day Prajwala doesn’t exist because there are alternatives in place. There are systems in place and there is no need of an intervention of this kind to be doing what we are doing.