03.03.10

The Sex-Slave Rescuer

Sunitha Krishnan works inside the bleak netherworld of human sex slavery in Indian slums. Michelle Goldberg reports on how the Prajwala founder remains, somehow, an optimist.

Sunitha Krishnan, a speaker at The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit, works inside the bleak netherworld of human sex slavery in Indian slums. Michelle Goldberg reports on how the Prajwala founder remains, somehow, an optimist.

When Sunitha Krishnan arrives at one of the shelters she runs for sex-trafficking victims in the Indian city of Hyderabad, several of the young women who live there throng around her, their high voices excited and quick. Just moments before, they tell her, a brothel madam and three of her goons had shown up at the shelter’s metal gate, screaming threats and abuse. No one seems particularly frightened—in Krishnan’s world, this sort of thing happens a lot. She’s been beaten up by traffickers 14 times in the last 18 years. Mere words don’t rattle her.

Only one girl, who hangs back from the others, looks shaken. She’d been rescued only the night before, and seems both confused and extremely wary. Her wrists are scarred with thick gashes. At first, Krishnan assumes they’re from suicide attempts—almost everyone in the shelter has at one time tried to kill herself—but the girl says she was cut by a customer. The truth, whatever it is, will probably come out later, when Krishnan has had time to win the girl’s trust. Right now, she has to head back to the headquarters of Prajwala, her anti-trafficking organization, because she has a meeting to plan another rescue.

Though Krishnan serves thousands of trafficking victims and pays herself no salary, she claims, “I rate myself one of the most selfish people… I never bothered about what my husband wants. I never worried about what my parents think.”

Sex trafficking and forced prostitution are massive industries in India. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but the Indian government estimates that the country has almost 3 million sex workers, more than a third of whom started as children. (Some NGOs say the proportion is even higher.) The southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where Hyderabad is located, is one of the country’s largest suppliers of women and girls, due partly to its overwhelming poverty and lower-than-average literacy rate. Krishnan has set herself against a Goliath.

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Some of the girls and women that Prajwala rescues were lured from home with promises of jobs in restaurants or fancy homes. Some ran away from abusive families and fell into the clutches of traffickers they met on the road. Others were simply sold by parents, husbands, or boyfriends. And some were born into the industry—their mothers are prostitutes. One of Krishnan’s shelters houses 185 children, some as young as 3. Most are HIV-positive and contracted the disease through rape.

Krishnan is a very small woman, several inches shy of five feet, dressed in jeans and a simple striped cotton tunic. She co-founded Prajwala, which means “eternal flame,” in 1996 with Brother Jose Vetticatil, a Catholic missionary who died in 2005. They started by creating a school for the children of sex workers in a former Hyderabad brothel. Initially, they had five students. Today, they're working with 5,000. Over 4,000 women and children have passed through Prajwala after being rescued from trafficking, and Krishnan estimates that 3,800 have been rehabilitated, meaning they’ve been restored to some semblance of a normal life.

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Prajwala has 300 employees, but Krishnan runs the organization as a full-time volunteer. “It’s a decision I took, very early in my life—I will never take money for this work,” she says. She supports herself, with help from her husband, by writing books and giving speeches and seminars on trafficking worldwide. Last year, when Prajwala needed money, she put her house up for sale, though at the last minute a philanthropist stepped in with $100,000.

Krishnan says her political awakening began when she was gang raped by eight men when she was 16. The worst part of it, she says, wasn’t the rape itself, but the way the surrounding society, including her own family, seemed to blame her for what happened. “Of course, being violated by eight men is not a pleasant experience, but that part of it faded,” she says. “But the psychological part of it, the social part of it, continued for many years, that’s when things started becoming more and more clear to me.” She realized, she said, “that women who are victims of sexual violence are doubly victimized by the society,” and she committed her life to fighting such victimization.

Her fearlessness and personal austerity made me think of Gandhi, but when I ask her if she’s studied his example, she responds that she prefers reading romance novels to history. “I never felt like I am giving up anything,” she says. “I always do what I want to do. I rate myself one of the most selfish people… I never bothered about what my husband wants. I never worried about what my parents think.”

During one of her first rescues, Krishnan had a bad experience with corrupt cops, and so for several years, she and her rescuers, many of them survivors of trafficking themselves, worked independently, “like a James Bond activity.” But in 1999, a member of her team, an ex-pimp, was murdered, and she realized she needed official cooperation. Today, Prajwala has four rescue teams with 12 members each, and they collaborate closely with the police.

“Our team is very strong and very motivated,” says one of the team leaders, Hamad Ali, a 28-year-old social worker. Sometimes, the men pose as customers, either to act as decoys during a raid or to gather information about a brothel. Former victims work as counselors, giving immediate guidance to the terrified rescued girls. None of them have weapons, and the threat of violence is constant. But Prajwala offers its employees something precious—the opportunity to make a profound impact in people’s lives day after day. “Prajwala is doing real work,” says Ali.

Often, the hardest work really begins when the drama of the rescue ends. “Among all the activities that I do, rescue is the easiest,” says Krishnan. It’s far more difficult to help a profoundly traumatized person reclaim her identity and her life. The women are often in dire physical condition. Sometimes they want to return to their brothels, either because of fear, drug addiction, or a kind of Stockholm syndrome. They need intensive mental-health treatment, and then they need to learn to make their way in the world despite the stigma that’s heaped on them.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Prajwala is that, though it operates in a sadistic, inconceivably bleak netherworld, the organization is actually suffused with hope. Its children’s home is an ebullient place. The kids are cheerful and confident, eager to talk about their studies and routines. Krishnan calls them “my children,” and it's clear that they love her like family.

Next door, a building the size of a small airplane hangar houses Prajwala’s extraordinary employment program. I’ve visited many income-generating schemes for poor women worldwide, but have never seen anything as big and professional as the one Krishnan has created. There are 100 women in the program. Some are learning welding; in the building’s courtyard are hundreds of bunk beds that they’ve made, and which will be sold locally. Others are learning bookbinding; the school notebooks that they’ve manufactured are piled 12 feet high. There’s a carpentry unit that makes school benches and a screen-printing unit that makes letterhead and greeting cards. “Girls we have trained as masons are working with big construction companies,” says Krishnan. Soon, she’s planning to institute an auto-mechanic program.

The challenges before Krishnan are unceasing. Right now, the jobs center is facing eviction, because a developer wants to build a mall on the site. She’s looking for new space, and finding judgmental landlords reluctant to rent to her. The horrors that surround her can seem overwhelming—as she wrote on her blog a few months ago, “There was a time in my life when I used to think if I meet God on the road, I may just kill him/her with my bare hands.” Nevertheless, even more than righteous anger, Krishnan exudes a kind of steely, determined optimism, and the calm of a person who has found her calling. She gestures toward the beds her girls have built. “For me, this is a miracle, a miracle place,” she says. “This keeps you going.”

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Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.