She is the voice of reference when it comes to fighting forced prostitution and human trafficking for sexual exploitation in India. She’s originally from Kerala but has been working for more than two decades in Hyderabad, the capital of Andra Pradesh State. There, in 1996, together with the Catholic missionary Jose Vetticatil, she founded an organisation that has a positive impact on the lives of thousands of children, adolescents, and women: Prajwala.
Since its launch, Prajwala has managed to save some 21,000 people from situations of sexual exploitation and forced prostitution. Some 18,500 have recovered and have been able to redirect their lives. In addition, it’s estimated that Prajwala’s work has prevented approximately 10,100 children from falling into prostitution and has sensitized millions of people about the risks that human trafficking for exploitation purposes causes.
Sunitha Krishnan’s commitment to human rights started way back. At age eight, she began teaching dance to children with psychic disabilities and then continued with educational initiatives and literacy campaigns for impoverished communities.
At fifteen, she suffered a collective rape, which changed her life forever. It was not just the violence, but everything that came later: guilt, stigmatization, and isolation. The rejection she suffered, rooted in a profoundly sexist and patriarchal social structure, triggered rage in Krishnan. She managed to channel this rage towards a clear objective: the liberation and recovery of women, adolescents, and children who live in situations comparable to sexual slavery.
Krishnan is now a social worker and mental health professional. She not only does field work but also wrote extensively on psychosocial interventions for victims of sexual trafficking. Her work has been recognized with numerous prizes but has also caught the attention of organized crime networks, traffickers and people who enrich themselves with forced prostitution. The activist is constantly harassed and threatened and has been assaulted more than 17 times These aggressions have caused, amongst others, back problems and deafness in her right ear. Prajwala’s facilities and vehicles have also been subject to intimidation and vandalism.
What does Prajwala mean?
It means “eternal flame”. It stands for a social revolution that will never die.
Since you founded Prajwala, how did forced prostitution and human sexual trafficking change in India?
First of all, sexual exploitation has moved from the “red-light districts” to apartments, hotels, resorts, beauty parlors, etc. With new technologies, it also reached the digital world. All this makes it more difficult to address. Second of all, the age of the victims has been reduced progressively. And lastly, this type of sexual exploitation was previously very focused on attracting poor and marginalized people; Now, however, with the new technologies and social networks, the middle-class is also targeted.
It’s easy to assume that most of the victims of sex trafficking come from impoverished socioeconomic backgrounds. Does your experience confirm this?
No. Any type of vulnerability, including emotional, can end up leading to a situation of sex trafficking or exploitation.
Prajwala carries out solid prevention work.
We have community vigilance groups that identify potential victims and prevent them from falling into trafficking situations.
We also work with the police, in a collaborative strategy that focuses on train and bus stations, and seeks to prevent potential victims (infants, girls, and women on the run) from being recruited. And we also work with boys and men, on strategies that seek to reduce the demand for such services.
Survivors play a very important role within Prajwala.
It is only with their collaboration that any lasting change possible. We cannot end trafficking for sexual exploitation without the participation of these survivors.
Do you think that the authorities are using sufficient resources and determination to end this form of slavery?
Efforts are being made, but they’re insufficient. We can only end this global crisis if it is considered as a war.
You state that civil society is your greatest challenge.
The attitudes and perceptions that society has of the victims make reintegration very difficult; That’s why I consider it the biggest challenge.
You have received several awards. Is there any recognition that is especially significant for you?
The smiles of the women and girls I serve is the only prize I yearn for. And I have this every day in my life.