Dr Sunitha Krishnan – dynamo crusader against trafficking of children and womenDecember 24, 2011, 9:21 am
"I was gang raped as a very young girl. I lived through a terrible period of withdrawal, shame and horror. Then I slowly came back to life, returned to school, went through university but always with the idea that what happened to me could happen to any other girl."
This admission by Dr (Mrs) Sunitha Krishnan who did not mince her words when she addressed a packed audience at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute Auditorium on Monday 12 December at the Sarvodaya Legal Services Movement celebration of the UN Human Rights Day 2011, combined with the 20th Kanchana Abhayapala Annual Human Rights Memorial Lecture. Dr Krishnan was the chief guest and keynote speaker. She is introduced thus in the invitation: "Anti-Trafficking Crusader Against Sex Trade and Co-Founder and Chief Functionary of Prajwala ‘eternal flame’ . Recipient of the Real CNN Hero Award.
She is diminutive; she herself gave her height as 4ft 8 in. But why I use the word dynamo in my title is because she is just that – a human dynamo in speaking and certainly absolutely dynamic in the work she does. Apart from the award mentioned in the invitation, she has won many more.
Her keynote address
She spoke with mike in hand, moving around in front of the head table on stage, and directing a power point projection. The Sarvodaya Legal Services had arranged for the provision of a translating system so that even Sinhala and Tamil speakers got what she said. She mentioned the fact she had warned earlier that she wanted no children in the audience and we understood why. But I must first say that she spellbound those present and brought up front all the misery, degradation and disease due to sex exploitation and sex predation. We shy away from these issues, but as she said, this crime is perpetrated in all countries of the world but more ferociously in poor countries. India suffers the menace in large measure, so do we in Sri Lanka, but surely much less severely.
Her language was direct, the statistics given horrendous, but people like her have to come forward and shout about these abuses, otherwise the abuses are all swept under a carpet of social complacency and of course the general public’s self centered closing of eyes to what happens to children and woman. We are comfortable in our safe cocoons and prefer to be like the three monkeys.
"A girl of age just 13 or even younger has to spread her legs to fifteen men in one night" said Sunitha Krishnan. She mentioned the utterly demonic idea some men have that mating with very young virgins will not only keep them safe from sexually transmitted diseases but will cure them if they are already sick – with terrible consequences to the victim. Numbers are not known exactly of any of these major crimes but she said it is a fact that one day old babies are sold for adoption."Girl children are not valued in India and infanticide is common. For Rs 500 a pregnant woman commits to sell her baby. A four year old child had barely seen sunlight because she was making bangles in a cell like room. A 20 kg weighing boy is tied to a leg of a racing camel and goes through hell as he is tossed from side to side and has to cling for dear life to the animal, who resents his presence."
A preliminary step to exploitation whether for sex or labour is trafficking and this of children and women. They are often lured, mostly by known women who return from the brothels they work in and promising them good, safe jobs, hand them over to exploiters. The victim becomes a perpetrator. "It’s a conspiracy of exploitation; the victims are optionless, powerless and utterly vulnerable. The sex workers are also kept eternally in debt, since they have to pay their exploiters for employment given them." Many vulture-like men and sometimes women live off one woman. Not only has the woman to work tirelessly in her sex job but she runs the risk of not only catching diseases but is at the mercy of the men who hire them to do what they will with them.
Sunitha and Prajwala
Into this deplorable mess in Hyderabad walks dynamic Sunitha Krishnan, a mental health professional wanting to help helpless girl children and women. She starts Prajwala, a non governmental organization opposed to forced prostitution and sex trafficking with the mandate to prevent second generations of sex workers by educating brothel children for careers in carpentry, welding, printing and housekeeping in hotels and hospitals. Prajwala is headquartered in Hyderabad which is the home city of Sunitha. She has committed her life as a fulltime volunteer in her NGO. She continues research, creating awareness of the plight of women of India and of the world in general. She is essentially a field practitioner.
Prajwala ‘eternal flame’, through its intervention, has rescued 7,436 girls from prostitution where 99.9 percent were forced into it and reject it totally as an income earner or way of life. She said that the girls who were moved to safety took time to recover since they had no trust in human beings; no identity; poor self esteem; were helpless and suffered from traumatic stress disorders. What the workers at Prajwala do is to first make them feel secure and assure their safety will continue. They then work on them carefully so they begin to believe in themselves and that they are worthwhile humans.
As at 2007 (Internet info) Prajwala was operating 17 schools in Hyderabad. We are sure the number is greatly increased and the area covered expanded. The workers have rescued thousands of trafficked children and manage jointly, with the government and citizen’s organizations, their rehabilitation and a return to their stolen childhoods. They also receive education, whether formal or employment based Prajwala has 200 fulltime staff of which almost half are rehabilitated victims of rape, forced prostitution and the entire gamut of exploitation.
Sunitha Krishnan spoke from her heart for almost one hour with not a note in hand but with clearly visible commitment, sympathy and practicality. She said we all should consider how we could be alive every minute of the day. If there was a problem (no end to problems really, I add) she advised recognizing it, facing it and attempting its solution. "I am asking you to be yourself. Can you respond? In our silence we extend cooperation to violence. Trafficking is our story. We need to find ways to respond."
Well Sunitha Krishnan has not only found ways to respond, but she, infecting others with her enthusiasm and drive, is doing so much to help violated children and women.
I am well aware that this is the Christmas season full of good cheer, shopping, indulgence and the good life. You may ask me then why I write about a subject such as trafficking, which is disturbing if not disgusting. I write to remind those having the time of their lives to remember the other half of humanity, the less privileged Sri Lankans. This reminder is not meant as a damper but as a flicker of humaneness and concern. We have so much in our country that needs correction and so many needing protection and care. So in 2012 we hope conditions will improve in this wonderful country for the majority of people – those of the middle and lower classes who suffer from privation and having to make do with less and less.
And of course with children who suffer from malnutrition to a stealing away of their childhood and the worst scenario - being trafficked for labour including sex exploitation. There are organizations like Sarvodaya who concern themselves with victims Sunitha Krishnan spoke about. More needs to be done. The government has a major responsibility with seeing to the welfare of women who migrate for menial employment and the children they leave behind. These women buttress the country’s foreign exchange earnings to a large extent. The Child Protection society has a whole lot to do. We hope they will be more circumspect and not rush to arrest people on anonymous calls (Prem Nivasa) or a single person’s complaint (sex education in an international school).
Another reason to write this article on this day is in recollection of the Star that shone over Bethleham 2012 years ago. It gave hope to the world. For me Sunitha Krishnan is like that star; resurrecting faith in human beings and the fact that with such as her around, there is hope for the hopeless, safety for those in danger of the worst that can happen to a girl child or woman – being predated upon by vile men.