What is more derogatory in this century than witnessing that humanity is still trapped in the clutches of the minds that refuse to see a woman beyond her sexuality? We only see rape a breach of the physical privacy of the victim by the rapist. What about the ruthless invasion by society on their dignity, mental state, and the hope of leading a normal life after the incident? The person will always be tagged as a “Rape Victim”. No matter what she does or becomes, the conversation starter about her will always be with “She was raped …:” Her entire existence is belittled by that one despicable incident in her life.
That is exactly what we, at Doer Life won’t be indulging into. The world deserves to know about Sunitha Krishnan for her phenomenal work of saving thousands of children and women from human trafficking and preventing second generation prostitution, by risking her life multiple times. The fact that she was gang-raped at 15 is just that – a fact. We don’t want this one fact to garner so much attention that it overshadows the honour her relentless work deserves. Sunitha Krishnan is not just a rape victim. She is a hero to those thousands of women and children whom she has liberated from the dark worlds of flesh trade and forced prostitution.
Sunitha, born in 1972 in Bangalore, was a social activist for the underprivileged since childhood. As a child, she taught dance to children with special needs. By 12, she was running small schools for the poverty-struck kids; and by 15, she was actively campaigning for the literacy of the Dalits. During this phase, she came at loggerheads with a few men who saw the young Sunitha as a threat to their patriarchal set-up of the society. When they couldn’t stop her, they decided to break her by raping her. Needless to say, the incident was devastating, but in retrospect, Sunitha feels that it wasn’t the rape that affected her as much as the way she was looked upon after it happened.
“What affected me more was the way society treated me, the way people looked at me. Nobody questioned why those guys did it. They questioned why I went there, why my parents gave me freedom. And I realized that what happened to me was a one-time thing. But for many people, it was a daily thing.”
She introspected that if a one-time incident can be so catastrophic for her, what about the plight of those women who face it every day? Inspired by her own struggle, she founded Prajwala, which translates to an eternal flame, with her late brother Jose Vetticatil. She first resolved to successfully convert a brothel in southern Hyderabad into a school for the children of sex workers to prevent them from getting into prostitution because of lack of education and alternative to lead a better life. Since then she has rescued and rehabilitated countless women and children. “When I started, I was left nauseous and shocked by the sight of 15-year-old victims. Today, I am not surprised even when it is a 5-year-old victim,” she sighs.
Our delusional comforting walls in life blinds us from the perils of others. Sunitha narrates one such incident; “A 14-year-old girl was rescued by our partner organisation, Justice & Care, in a brothel house near Hyderabad. During the rescue itself, the team was shocked to note that the girl could hardly move and yet there was a customer in the cubicle when the rescue happened. As soon as the victim was admitted in our shelter for rehabilitation, we had to shift her to the hospital as she was very sick and could barely walk. In the hospital, we found out that practically all her organs were malfunctioning and both her kidneys had already failed. The child eventually died after 10 days. I am yet to come to terms with the impunity of such human beings who have no qualms to trade a dying child or buy sex from a dying child. This attitude bordering dehumanisation, to me, is the root of many such crimes. I’ve come to realise that law alone cannot change things until the change comes from within each and every one of us. We need to value the human body and start respecting boundaries.”
Sunitha has been attacked 14 times by the traffickers who don’t want her to take away their earning resources off the streets. However, even an acid attack or permanent damage to one of her ears during one such attack couldn’t budge her. Along with rescuing, her organisation provides moral, economic, legal, and social support to the victims of trafficking. During initial years, Sunitha had to sell off her jewellery and even most utensils of her household to make ends meet.
What is noteworthy about Sunita’s efforts is that instead of only relying on the struggle to bring laws that can prevent such crimes, she also prominently focuses on the root cause – the mindset. In an interview with The Logical Indian, she says, “The main problem is the attitude of people. Until you stop looking at a woman’s body as something that can be bought, sex trafficking will never end. There are many issues. The main issue is the men who are willing to pay for sex, the men who are willing to satisfy their libido by paying for a child. That attitude, that bodies can be used and thrown, that attitude scares me.”
In order to combat this attitude, Prajwala has initiated two unique campaigns- The Swarakhsha Campaign, that is its first ever survivor-led campaign to reach 1 million people. The second is Men Against Demand (MAD) which aims to bring sensitivity in men against buying sex, and also encouraging other men to abandon it.
Every year, about 2 lakh women and children become victims of sex trafficking. One of every fourth person forced into prostitution is a child, at times, even as young as five-year-old. A majority of them later become HIV positive. The damage done, not only to their bodies but also minds is irreversible. The atrocities behind the closed doors of brothels scar them for life. Rightly so, Sunitha feels that a major shift in attitude is needed in how we bring up the sons of India. After all, who are the customers in this trade? She says,
“Something has gone seriously wrong in how are we bring up our sons. There are boys who are 20 or 25 years old who go to brothels to buy sex. Then there are 70-year-old men who look at their 5-year-old grandchildren as potential objects to have sex with. There is something seriously wrong. I think we need to redirect our attention from the women to the men. We need to talk about how we can change the attitude of men. Every time a Nirbhaya happens, everybody talks about apps for women safety, about the importance of pepper sprays, about martial arts for women – this only passively fosters a regressive attitude towards women and girls. Such overly victim-oriented thinking is never solution-oriented. It only leads to more paranoia and more regressive attitude. By shifting our focus towards men and boys, we are moving in the right direction.”
Sunitha feels that her efforts wouldn’t have yield fruits without active participation from various stakeholders such as the police, media, and the government authorities. Her efforts have won her multiple awards including the honourable Padma Shree in 2016.
She continues to battle for the women and children who were ripped off their right to lead a dignified human life for the sadistic pleasures of a few men. As a world, we have to cross an infinity to make it equal and just. However, as long as we have people like Sunitha Krishnan, we know at least the injustice is constantly being fought and won over.