Breaking down the sex trade and rebuilding its victims: Q&A with Sunitha Krishnan

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Sunitha Krishnan’s talk was easily the most talked-about at TEDIndia, and sharing it with the world on TED.com provoked emotional reactions from many people — all showing support for her and her work. She chatted with the TEDBlog on Sunday, to give just a little more insight on her critically important efforts against human trafficking and the sex trade, recounting the emotional journey of creating Prajwala and explaining how our silence can enable abuse.

In your talk, you shared the personal story of your attack and explained how alone, isolated and even stigmatized you felt afterward. For those of us who don’t live in India, could you explain what that situation was like, especially culturally? What did you go through and what do the girls you work with go through in their families and communities?

Actually, I think the kind of isolation I felt is something very global. I don’t think it’s very cultural. Of course the cultural context has different manifestations, but the isolation a victim of sexual violence goes through I think is a global phenomenon. It’s the manifestation of it or the face of it that may change in different countries.

In my country, it might be something very verbal, something very physical. People might outwardly blame you for this thing happening, questioning your parents by asking, “Why did you allow her so much freedom?” or parents may actually question the girl by asking, “Why did you go there?” It’s a very emotional drama. Also, the perception of the people around you can change — people tell their children, “Don’t talk to this girl. She’s kind of a morally loose person.” People will tell their children not to mingle with this girl because she does not have a good character.

Now, these are some of the faces that I would see here and even some things that I have experienced myself. I’m sure in other cultural contexts it would mean an emotional isolation. Most people aren’t able to understand what this person is going through, whether it is the violation, the pain, the trauma and most importantly, the sense of dirtiness that one feels inside. No matter what people say, that feeling does not leave immediately. The fact that there have been foreign hands, somebody who you don’t know, somebody who you don’t want to has touched you against your wishes, that sense of being violated gives you a very dirty sense within. You feel cheapened. It takes a little while to be comfortable with your body. It takes a little while to say, “I’m alright.” You don’t feel alright within.

So, I think there are two kinds of isolation one goes through. One is the isolation within, going through the process of understanding your own body, not liking your body and also going through a certain amount of guilt and pain, thinking that you are actually responsible for what happened to you. Then there’s the external isolation, and here there is so much shame involved, so many honor issues involved, family prestige is involved. Your family asks, “Now, why do you want to talk about this? Why do you want to go around telling this story? Isn’t it bad enough that you’ve brought so much family shame?” The fact that you are a victim is lost on most people. Most of the discussions are about how to hide this issue, and the more you hide it and suppress it is the more the isolation from within increases.

I’ve met people who’ve been sexually abused in the United States, I’ve met people in Europe. They all have a similar kind of isolation from within — the pain, the trauma, the guilt. It’s all the same. In a different cultural context like the one I live in, in India, it’s also combined with a very real, tangible social isolation. We’re a very close-knit society, and everybody knows everybody, families are very close. We live in joint families, in a very close-knit family structure. There’s so much shame and family honor, very hypocritical external factors, added to this.

Now, mine is a one-time incident. When you talk about my girls, you’re talking about a systemic incidence. You’re talking about centuries of isolation. Their isolation is such that they are born into the fringes of society. It’s not just about a family saying, “You have shamed us.” It’s about the whole society saying you’re a fallen person, you’re a morally loose person, you’re somebody who doesn’t belong to the society and you’re somebody who has no right to mix with the larger society. Therefore, you, your shadow, your children’s presence, anything that is a part of you is not welcome in the society. You’re not a part of the society. That is what my girls go through. That is not something that people forget. It’s like their faces are branded. They go through labeling, it is stamped on them forever. You are that. You are eternally morally loose, and therefore you have no right to come back to this so-called moral society. Somebody like me, and my trauma and my isolation cannot compare to this kind of a trauma. I’ve gone past there, and people no longer associate me with that incident. Everybody accepts me. Today I tell my story and it doesn’t conjure any isolation or stigma, but for my girls, it’s a very long haul.

No matter how many stories I tell, the larger feeling in the world does not change in this respect. I’ve had situations where people have had lengthy discussions with me, and I’ve spent upwards of two and three hours talking to them about this issue, and often when they seem to understand they don’t, really. I won’t mention the name of the place, but there was one particular place that the girls went to, where it took a lot of effort to work with the employer. I spent a couple of hours of talking to this person and I thought the situation could work, but every time my girl who was working there talked to a male colleague, immediately I would get a call — “Oh Sunitha, you know this girl is getting very friendly with the men here.” So you see, her every move is watched. She can’t be friendly to a man, she can’t fall in love with anybody. I remember this particular girl falling in love with a co-worker there, and the employer actually called the co-worker and told him what her background was, saying, “How dare you fall in love with this girl? You have no idea what her background is.” He also called the girl and said, “How dare you fall in love with this chap? Don’t you know where you’ve come from?”

This is a kind of isolation I am not able to digest. This is a kind of isolation I don’t know how to come to terms with, and this is where I feel like a failure. How much more can you explain to these people? I think I’ve told them enough. I’ve taken hours to tell them this story.

Could you explain how you came to begin Prajwala? When did you decide that this was something you wanted to do and where did you find the resources to begin helping these young women?

The name Prajwala came later in life, but knowing that I wanted to be with these women, that I wanted to do something for these children was there from an early age. It was figuring out how I would do it and what I would do that took some time to evolve. After I finished college, I was in Bangalore for a little while and I did a lot of counseling with these women and understanding their problems, but not starting anything in particular. In the meantime, I did a lot of strong bonding with these people through various incidents that brought us closer to each other. But, I wasn’t really doing anything for them yet, because I didn’t know what I should be doing.

Then, I was arrested for protesting (against the 1995 Miss World contest held in Bangalore) and had to spend some time in jail. I experienced isolation from a different angle. I was in the jail for months and I experienced rejection, complete rejection from family and such. That was another experience that molded me in a very big way. There was a physical isolation, in terms of not meeting people, and nobody coming to you and nobody bothering to see how she’s doing or what she’s doing and what kind of conditions she’s living in. I remember days waiting for somebody to come. My father tried coming and he did come once or twice, but my mother, my sisters and my brother and even my friends, they didn’t think it was important to see me in jail. I remember, there was this huge door and during the day there would be a knock, and the whole jail would fall silent. Everybody was waiting to see who was being called to have a visitor. I spent days and weeks waiting for my name to be called and facing the disappointment of not being called. I remember the day when I was released from jail — not a single family member or friend was there to receive me outside. Many of my co-activists had a lot of people come to receive them, and so I felt a kind of a rejection.

In many ways, this was my turning point in understanding what it means to be on the fringes of society. My rape did not make me feel that. Yes, there was a stigma, there was isolation, a lot of emotional isolation, but there was not physical isolation. I was still within the family. Now, I experienced absolute physical rejection. I was not part of anything. People did not come to see me. Nobody claimed me and I was not connected to anybody. The sense of loneliness that goes with that was a very interesting firsthand experience for me and it helped consolidate my thinking. I learned exactly what my women and children go through, and therefore all my efforts, my life, my breath, my being was then dedicated to that. There was no looking back now.

I left Bangalore under these circumstances and then reached Hyderabad. Coincidentally, at the same time there was a red light area in Hyderabad that was shut down, and there were a lot of women put into jail. That’s when we decided to start Prajwala. In the beginning, we asked the women what they wanted from us. They said, “Forget about us. Do something for our children.” And that’s how Prajwala was born, as an initiative for their children. It started with just about five children. We had no money, we had nothing except a pair of gold earrings that I owned. I sold those earrings and that’s the first funding we had. I was living a very frugal existence, staying in the slums. I was the first teacher in the school that we started.
We looked at it like a partnership. From the beginning, we realized that we were not gods coming here to save somebody. We were coming to work as partners with the persons involved. That’s how we started our school with five children. Today, we have 5,000 children studying in 17 schools. Five children became 10 children, which became 15 children. After the first school started, people from that area started coming and demanding other schools. So, again, one school became two schools and now we have 17 schools. But also the partnership and the bond between us and the mothers became very strong. I remember systematically having discussions with these women, asking them, “How do you feel when you know that they should be in school, and your child is prostituting on the road?” And, information about children started coming in — there’s a eight-year-old child who’s prostituting here, and a 12-year-old child who’s prostituting there.

READ MORE: Sunitha Krishnan explains how she finds the children she rescues, how corporate partnerships are helping rebuild young girls’ lives, why we must not remain silent and how TEDIndia deeply affected her.That’s something that I was wondering about. How on earth do you find the information you need to get to these children and rescue them?

Mothers are our first informers. Many of the women who are prostituting are also mothers. They’re the ones who actually tell us where the child is. Then when we come in, we have to do something. I do remember at that time trying to get the police’s support, in vain of course. You realize there are a lot of issues with getting support when doing this work. At first, only the mothers supported us.

And, for some time, we didn’t know what to do with these children. We didn’t know where to take them, so we contacted other people to keep these children. But, it didn’t work out because most organizations said that they were corrupting their other children. They said that it was not good to have them in their facilities, because other children would get spoiled. There was one child of mine that I placed in an orphanage, and this child told me, “Aunty, you have dropped me from one hell to another hell.” That was it. I decided we needed to start our own shelter. So we took a small house and started up our shelter for children.

Now, we are supported by a small number of people giving us money, small donors. At one point, we started getting noticed for our work and the money started coming in. But when we started our shelter, we didn’t know how we would get support. I was the first cook and caretaker of my shelter. And a couple of weeks in, we discovered that most of the children were HIV positive. Everything was happening around us, and we came to know about it as we went along. There was no preparation. We didn’t have a chance to sit down and plan for HIV or the trauma involved. Everything evolved over a period of time.

Then the rescue just expanded. We began moving across the state of Andhra Pradesh. Then, we started moving to other states in the country — to Delhi, to Bombay, to many other places. And then we realized another huge thing, that a child who was raped two or three times, who was only just inducted into prostitution and the girl who’s been in prostitution for 10 years, these are two different mentalities. What worked with this child does not work with this young girl. For example, when we went to Delhi we were with three 15-year-old girls, already in prostitution for five or six years. These young girls were totally different from a child rescued much earlier. It didn’t make sense to put these two people together, and that’s why from one shelter we moved on to the second shelter. By this time our funding had crystallized, we had donors like UNICEF and UNIFEM — all these agencies were not only monetarily supporting us, but lent more credibility to the organization.

With children, education worked but with young girls we had to explore the possibility of livelihood. This is why we started exploring livelihood options. We were the first in the country to actually explore the possibility of corporate social partnership. I remember international organizations who had migrated to India coming to our rescue at the time. We had a breakthrough with International Organization for Migration who helped us begin a chain of pizza parlors. This was the beginning of real partnerships, where people could actually partner with our program to help us, without giving us money or doing charity. This was more sustainable. This had much more important implications in the lives of the girls.

Our partnerships continued to expand, to different corporate hospitals, corporate hotels and many different places. I can’t mention the names, largely to ensure the confidentiality of our program and the confidentiality of our girls. In our corporate social partnerships, the most important part is to ensure confidentiality, because you really don’t know how different people will react to these situations. We felt very strongly compelled and we chose to start expanding and exploring the market.

I also felt very strongly that trades, especially male-dominated trades, should be explored. These girls are very strong. They don’t fear the world. They’ve already crossed that hurdle. I also had reason to believe that succeeding at something very male-dominated could have a very therapeutic impact. That’s how we started teaching welding and carpentry to the girls. And it had a really miraculous impact on their hearts and minds. Some of the girls said they felt on top of the world. They were no longer rejected by the outside world, they were on par with men and sometimes even doing better than men. That’s extremely empowering for these girls. Today we run our own small training unit teaching screenprinting, welding, carpentry, masonry, motor mechanics — all very male-dominated trades. It’s not just the economic empowerment, it’s also psychologically restorative.

Then, we went out to expand our prevention program. Remember all of this had begun with second generation prevention. So we went back to it. We started going to villages, we started going to the slums, we started going to the schools, talking about these issues and educating people about these issues. We explained to people that we all need to be aware of it, we all need to be vigilant about it, we need to fight for the children. And, we started to work with men, talking to them about their side of the issue. We formed a group called MAD, Men Against Demand, by which we mean the demand for prostitution. We need to address this problem not just from the supply end, but from the perspective of demand also. This is a very interesting and very strong campaign.

In our journey, one of the big lessons we have learnt is that we cannot do things alone. Partnership is important. If you believe you can do it all on your own, you’re a fool. You need to partner with people, and one important stakeholder you need to partner with is the government. You have to start working with the government, you need to start advising them about the problem and pushing them to take some action. Also, we work with the police, we work with law enforcement, sensitizing and training them. We tell them how to deal with people in these situations. Today I know hundreds and thousands of wonderful police officers, who do so much to help. This is as a result of partnership. So today we are in a position where we partner with the government, with the law enforcement and with the judiciary to bring a collective change.

I want to revisit something you just mentioned. You talked about men and demand, and in your TEDTalk you also mentioned that the men who support industry are also men in regular society. You seemed to imply in your talk that we should take the responsibility to address this, that we shouldn’t let these things go or see them as something that is not our business.

Yes, I would say that often, even within our own families we have experiences of some kind of issue like this. It may not come from our fathers or brothers, there’s often some uncle or somebody further removed that we know is committing acts like this. When we keep quiet, that’s where it all begins.

When a father abuses his own daughter or a brother abuses his own sister, we sometimes keep quiet because it’s too shameful to talk about. We don’t take action because we don’t want to talk about it. And, when this happens, this man gains a huge amount of confidence. This person feels confident to do what he wants to do, because he thinks that nobody is going to say anything about it. So yes, it begins with our silence.

In fact, when it comes to incest, there are hundreds and millions of people across the world it has happened to, but who have never talked about it. They are so ashamed that they live with it for years. But, what have done with this silence? They have promoted violence. They have sanctioned violence. They have allowed a man to become an abuser for a lifetime. This man has no qualms to go and ask for a five-year-old child to have sex with, because when you can to do it to your own child, you have no problem doing it somebody else’s. I think that silence needs to be addressed today. We, the rest of the world, need to object. We need to question those men, we need to question our culture of silence.

We have come a long way. We have rescued more than 3,200 children. We have programs for rescue, economic empowerment, rehabilitation, prevention and more. We’re doing it all. But it’s not enough. Every one of us has to be conscious of what’s going on. We have to become a voice for every child, because his silence or her silence or anybody’s silence promotes something else.

When you came to TEDIndia to present your ideas, to share your voice, what was that like for you? How were those ideas received and what did you think of the whole experience?

I came to TEDIndia with quite a bit of fear, and I was not so keen to go. I felt like a fish out of water on the first day. There were all these brilliant achievers and when I heard people speaking, I thought, “My God, what am I doing here? I don’t have any fantastic invention. I don’t belong to this place.” When my presentation came, I was a bundle of nerves. Everybody else was changing the world, changing technology, bringing hope, and my story is a depressing story. I didn’t even speak my full 18 minutes, I was so nervous.

But, after I finished my presentation and I saw the reaction, the first feeling I had was, “God, there are so many people and they are so compassionate. They understand this problem. They understand what I’m saying.” I can’t tell you the amount of strength that gave me. It also gave me great hope, and the anger that surrounds this issue for me actually diluted a little. All these people made me feel so special and good about what I do. I was surprised at how many people were reaching out to me emotionally.

There were also the offers of money that happened immediately. At first, I also was not sure that these would come through. It was a very nice feeling to be offered. Just the fact that somebody offered, was really nice. But, having worked in this area a while, I take these things with not just a grain, but a bag of salt. However, $100,000 is what was pledged during the TEDIndia conference, and today I have received around $200,000. The support came from many different people, some of them were not from India, but many of them were and that is also very important.

You see, even more helpful than the money is the kind of support I now have, because if I have a problem, I can call somebody who can help. For example, right now I’m having a problem because I did not bribe an income tax official, so I’ve been classified right now as though I’m not doing charitable work but as if I’m doing profit-making work. As a result, the income tax bureau has passed an order for around $100,000 in taxes. So, right now, I’m in the middle of a crisis and trying to find people to appeal this order. And, the TEDsters have been pledging their support, they’re supporting me and connecting me to the right people to get this cleared up. So, what has significantly changed is that today, I don’t feel alone. There are people who believe in me and there are people who are standing by me. That’s what TEDIndia has given me.

To hear more from Sunitha and to keep up with the evolution of Prajwala, visit her blog here >>