Sunitha Krishnan

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a strong and disturbing story today about sex trafficking and the courageous work of one woman in India who is rescuing young children from forced prostitution. Estimates of the number of young girls sold for sex across international borders go up to nearly two million a year, not counting those tricked or kidnapped into prostitution within their own countries. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports today from the southern India city of Hyderabad.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She stands barely taller than these children, but to them Dr. Sunitha Krishnan is a towering figure — big sister, mother, and school principal rolled into one. Their faces betray few outward signs of the trauma these children have endured. Every child at this transition center is HIV positive. They weren’t born that way. They were infected as a result of rape or incest.

Dr. SUNITHA KRISHNAN (Co-founder, Prajwala): I don’t know what their future is. I know what their present would be, and for me it’s one day at a time right now. And my effort is to see that their smiles are restored everyday, and I can sustain their smiles.

DE SAM LAZARO: But beneath her smile lies a deep anger that propels Krishnan. It began when, as a teenage social activist, she was gang-raped.

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Dr. KRISHNAN: The rape per se was not so much of an issue for me. I don’t know, for some reason I was never traumatized by that, the fact that I was raped. But what happened after that made me think [about] the way my family treated me, the way the world treated me, the way people around me treated me. The sense that thousands and millions of children and young people are being sexually violated and that there’s this huge silence about it around me angers me. This huge normalization of that angers me.

DE SAM LAZARO: Krishnan began working to combat sexual violence in what she says is its most pervasive form — prostitution. After getting a doctorate in social work, she and a Catholic brother, who died in 2005, founded Prajwala, which means “eternal flame.” It is dedicated to removing — she says rescuing — women from brothels. It begins with helping their children. In 1995 she started a school with five children. Today, aside from this boarding school for HIV positive kids, Prajwala runs 17 schools across the city of Hyderabad with 5,000 children.

Dr. KRISHNAN: If this facility was not here today perhaps most of the girl children would be inducted into prostitution.

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DE SAM LAZARO (to Dr. Krishnan): Even at this age?

Dr. KRISHNAN: I would say eight or nine. The older children that you saw on the other floor are children who would have been easily procured for prostitution and most of the boys, right from the age of six or seven perhaps, would be pimping for their mothers.

DE SAM LAZARO: She says about two million people are trafficked each year within India or from neighboring countries. Most are inducted into the sex trade at age 10 or even earlier, usually destined for big cities and tourist areas. Prajwala has developed a network of informants in the sex industry to help conduct what have become trademark brothel raids. Most of the young women rescued are already veterans of the trade. Many are actually very reticent.

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Dr. KRISHNAN: There’s so much desensitization that has happened, so much normalization of exploitation that has happened, so much internalization of trauma that has happened. Most of the time, you know, they develop some very close attachments, and they will any day go back. Some of them would any day go back to their pimps or procurer than rather be with us.

DE SAM LAZARO: In fact many do go back to a life that’s become normal, a familiar routine. But Prajwala has managed to coax 1,500 women out of prostitution. Peer counselors like 20-year-old Malini play a critical role.

MALINI (Peer Counselor, Prajwala, through translator): When we get the girls, they cry a lot. I ask why, and I tell them my own story, that this is what happened to me and I don’t want the same to happen to you.

DE SAM LAZARO: Malani’s story is typical. There was abuse, poverty, and despair in her home. A seemingly helpful adult friend, often it’s a relative, offered the young daughter work in the big city. Instead, says Malini, she was sold into a brothel. The price the brothel paid for her then became the price she would have to pay for her freedom, paid from her brothel earnings. The accounting is elastic and entirely dictated by pimps or madams, as she found out months into her servitude.

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MALINI (through translator): One day they told me, “There’s a small balance, and when you pay it off you’ll be free to go.” I asked how much, and they said 200,000 rupees. I got frightened. I said, “Why 200,000? I’ve been here so many months, and you’ve earned so much money from me.” They just beat me, so I ran away.

DE SAM LAZARO: But running to the police in a city she didn’t know, she encountered only more violence.

MALINI: When we asked the police, “Why are you hitting us?” they said “because you do this immoral work.” And I said, “Well, why are you catching us? You should go after our house madams, not us.” But they just beat us some more.

DE SAM LAZARO: Official corruption has decreased in recent years. Prajwala’s rescue raids are now conducted with the police. At least part of this is due to pressure from Washington. The U.S. Justice Department publishes an annual T.I.P. or Trafficking in Persons report. Countries that show no improvement in cracking down run the risk of some trade sanctions.

Dr. KRISHNAN: At one level it irritates me to no end that my country would require somebody else from outside to tell them that this is a problem. That’s not the right way to go about it.

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DE SAM LAZARO: At the same time, she’s not shy in telling the U.S. and others what to do. Twenty-five percent of sex tourists in Asia are American, she says.

Dr. KRISHNAN: So one needs to ask questions in America also about why American people want small children to have sex with, and that if they don’t get it in their own countries, they seek it out in countries like Sri Lanka and India and Philippines. You’re about imposing sanctions on India, but have you also thought about imposing sanctions on your own country?

DE SAM LAZARO: Krishnan says Washington has laws against sexual predators, even those that offend abroad. But she says it doesn’t enforce them enough. In India, her advocacy has strengthened laws to counter trafficking and to protect victims. Prajwala’s rescue raids are now conducted in many of the country’s major prostitution areas.

Dr. KRISHNAN: Most of these girls have spent many years in flesh trade, and this is a kind of a transit shelter.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (through translator, lecturing to group of children): You’re not old yet, and at your age girls should remember a few important things: the way you dress, your behavior. How should that be? It should be acceptable to others. For example, the way you walk.

DE SAM LAZARO: It will take months with lectures and skits to unlearn the sexualized behavior and demeanor they’ve acquired.

Dr. KRISHNAN (speaking in Hindi to group of girls): Hey girl, where are you going? Come here. How much do you want?

First, tell me, why did all of this happen?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: If a girl’s good looking, people will make comments like that.

Dr. KRISHNAN (to unidentified girl): Do you think this happens to regular women?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: No, it’s because of the way we’re dressed. That’s why they are saying that.

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DE SAM LAZARO: Young women like 19-year-old Abbas Bee are trained in traditional life skills and quite untraditional occupational ones. The goal is to find good-paying jobs, jobs rarely held by women in India. Prajwala itself runs a printing and metal workshop and that helps pay for its work, along with grants from UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, and others.

Dr. KRISHNAN: We have trained young girls as welders, as carpenters, as printers, as bookbinders, as screen printers, as taxi drivers and auto drivers. We also train them as housekeepers to work in hotels and hospitals and things like that.

DE SAM LAZARO: Their earnings make women like Abbas more eligible as brides, even though she, like perhaps 25 percent of women here, is HIV positive.

ABBAS BEE (Through Translator): I want to get married to a very kindhearted man, and I definitely want an HIV positive man, because I don’t want to ruin somebody’s life. He should be caring. If he is sick, I’ll take care of him, and if I’m sick, he’ll take care of me.

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DE SAM LAZARO: If she does get married, her wedding, like many others, will happen at Prajwala.

Dr. KRISHNAN: At any given point of time there is somebody pregnant, somebody delivering or somebody — something’s happening. So from birth to death, birth to death, we are the only linkage.

DE SAM LAZARO: She tries to reconcile these women with their families, but for many Prajwala is the only family they know. It’s a daunting parental role for the 34-year-old Krishnan, one for which she calls deeply on her faith.

Dr. KRISHNAN: I am a practicing Hindu. I have this deep-rooted belief that my life is a providence by itself, and God has brought me in this world to do what I’m doing, and God will allow me to stay in this world so long as he believes that my mission is not done, and therefore I do believe that the day God believes that my work is done, I’ll be killed or I’ll die naturally, or whichever way that is possible.

DE SAM LAZARO: Prostitution is a very lucrative organized crime she says. She’s been beaten up 14 times since starting Prajwala, the price for rescuing thousands of children from what she calls “the world’s oldest form of slavery.”

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Hyderabad, India.

  • Molly

    If i has a chance to do a social work and being a volunteer for this.. i m willing but i m from Malaysia…. i wanted to help… but dont know in which way.. anyway best of luck to you and ur future plans.

  • Unknown, USA

    Sunitha Krishnan,

    You are the true shining star of India, and I hope you are alive and hearty for a long long time to continue doing your supremely difficult work. And I hope when its time for you to go, there’ll be thousands of your replicas to carry on the flame that you have ignited. God bless you.

  • Want change

    May god bless you sunitha. I sincerely wish for some more of your replicas. Only then, there is a hope to awaken the sense of their share of responsibility in a common man of this de sensitized society.

  • sivan edamana