She battles on

MOTHER COURAGE

She battles on

ANTI-TRAFFICKING CRUSADER Dr Sunitha Krishnan

Betrayal. Rage. Pain. Dr Sunitha Krishnan is no stranger to these intense emotions as she strives to fight sexual slavery and provide a safe space for trafficked children and women.

*A victim-witness, a 12-year-old girl, has turned hostile, destroying the case that Sunitha painstakingly built over four years against the trafficker, an NGO that allegedly runs a child pornography racket online.

*The landlord of one of her shelters in Hyderabad wants her to vacate the premises because of complaints from “respectable neighbours”.

*A senior bureaucrat has just declared that Sunitha is fighting a losing battle, because “there are two things that cannot be changed in the world: exploitation and the biological needs of men”.

*She is garlanded on stage, but her kids won’t get school admission because of who she is and the work she does.

Yet, Sunitha refuses to be drained or depressed.

“Rejection and humiliation come with the territory,” she says, quietly. A victim of abuse herself — a fact that she doesn’t hide or hype, she draws strength from pain and anger, channelising it to the task at hand. Which is to use every possible forum, be it the prestigious TED TALKS or a pompous award ceremony, to shake society out of its complacency.

“I am constantly shocked by the tolerance of the world. I don’t understand this whole culture of tolerance for violence, exploitation and slavery. I am tired of being treated like a ‘Discovery of India’ channel! How many more stories do I have to tell of abused kids? I will not give up, but I feel a lot more could have been achieved if many more people are doing what I am doing,” she says, eyes flashing.

Agent of change

As founder of ‘Prajwala’,  a rescue and rehabilitation organisation, Bangalore-born and Hyderabad-based Sunitha has been threatened, stalked and beaten up by traffickers.
“There was a time when I thought my courage and commitment would carry me through until one of my colleagues was murdered right before my eyes and I could do nothing. Since then I have taught myself to use different strategies to network and partner — be it with police, public prosecutors, other NGOs or bureaucrats. I have learnt the importance of dialogue because no single stakeholder can bring about change. Everyone has a role to play when women and kids are trafficked,” she says.

An insensitive section of society won’t even give her a place on rent, forcing her to raise money, buy land and build shelters on Hyderabad’s outskirts. But a significant number of people support her cause. Like the rickshaw puller near Charminar who donates 10 per cent of his earnings every single day to ‘Prajwala’.

‘Prajwala’ partners with 83 NGOs around the world. In Bangalore, Sunitha describes Mahila Jagruti and the local police as valuable partners when it comes to organising inter-state rescue operations.

At the TED TALKS in Mysore in 2009, she found a new world of compassion. She went to attack the culture of silence against trafficking, but ended up experiencing a miracle. “I was the one who raised the most money at TED that year! It showed me that the world is capable of so much,” she says.  The TED experience also showed her that there are many, many people in the world who are as passionate about their work as she is. “It reduced the size of the halo around my head,” she says with a grin.

She uses technology to further her mission. But she is also aware that technology helps traffickers stay ahead of their game. “Those of us who believe that there should be a trafficking-free society are sitting here and telling stories while the traffickers have moved on to strengthen their networks. They are 20 million steps ahead of us.”

For Sunitha, daily run-ins with traffickers are par for the course. “I can’t imagine another life. I am witness to the pain of abuse. I am also witness to power of the smile of a child and the power of healing,” she says. It’s this power that galvanises her to help young victims rebuild their lives.

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