#PowerfulWomenOfAHT : Interview with Sunitha Krishnan (Founder, Prajwala)

Apurva Vurity


This International Women’s Day, we want to share with you the experiences of the #PowerfulWomenOfAHT. In this interview, Sunitha Krishnan, Founder of Prajwala, spoke to us about the challenges of being an activist and running an organization in the Anti-Human Trafficking sector. 

You have been an activist fighting for women’s rights for decades. What are the challenges of being an activist in the Anti-Human Trafficking space in India?

There are three different dimensions to the challenges we face in this space. The first challenge arises from the fact that we are fighting an organized crime while working with a group of women and children who are extremely traumatised. This means that we must be prepared to deal with their hostility considering their lack of trust in everyone around them, especially the system. A lot of them have accepted their current lives while some others have normalized the exploitation that they continue to face. As an organization, we face the challenge of working with a group who might not accept our help. It becomes an even bigger challenge if you are an organization that works at the grassroot level. On the other hand, with the organized criminal syndicate, the concern has always been that they challenge your work by attacking your image. The attacks get more severe as your work becomes more impactful.

The second challenge we face is that of a non-responsive system. We are basically dealing with a state and a system that probably does not understand the problem at depth. While the planning at the higher level goes well, the implementation is usually a failure. The state’s responsibility towards a victim is to ensure that systems are present on ground but the reality is completely different. For us, engaging with the state can be a dead end sometimes where the smallest of things have to be followed up on but they still don’t move ahead.

The biggest challenge we face is from the detractors of the development sector. They have a certain understanding of human rights where they tend to challenge our approach in the anti-human trafficking sector. The rescue and rehabilitation model are perceived as a human rights violation. This kind of a monolithic view can do a lot of harm to the work we have been doing with trafficked survivors. It paints us in a regressive light because their understanding of rights and dignity is very different from ours even though we have been on-field supporting and fighting for the rights of women.

While Trafficking has been globally recognised as a violent crime, how different is the context of the crime in India?

Trafficking is definitely a global concern but every country has its own nuanced context because vulnerabilities are not the same in every country. Trafficking is essentially an abuse of vulnerabilities and if vulnerabilities are not uniform, then how can the crime be uniform? Our country specifically has lesser value for the lives of girl children which is evident from the crimes of infanticide and foeticide – both of which continue to be a common practice even today. India’s literate population also engages in these practices which is a reflection of the patriarchal society that we live in. This kind of vulnerability and discrimination is different from the vulnerabilities of other countries like the USA. They have a disintegrated family structure, different dynamics between genders and a different understanding of sex and sexuality. Thus, their vulnerabilities are different and so is the nature of the crime there. One of the biggest mistakes that we make is to adopt the western idea of this crime without contextualizing it. In India, the basic concept of consent has always been a little flawed which means that other concepts like self-determination and choice are also very misunderstood. The idea of ‘choice’ must always be viewed in the context in which that choice is made. Unfortunately, people have adopted a western understanding of our vulnerabilities without acknowledging the complexities of the crime in India.

Since the crime and the vulnerabilities are unique to every country or region, it is important that our anti-trafficking models take this into consideration. I remember when I was visiting UK once and had learnt about their anti-trafficking efforts only to realize that it cannot be applied in India. In the UK, the period of time from when a person is first rescued from exploitation to when the person stops getting access to a safe space is only 45 days. I wondered what kind of miracle will ensure that a person who is so traumatized recovers in 45 days. But then, I eventually realized that this was their model of encouraging self determination based on the kind of challenges that survivors might face. On the other hand, here, in India, survivors take much longer for progress because of the kind of stigma and taboo we have. Hence, you can’t say that what is happening in the UK is the way it should happen in India too. That is why it is important to understand that while this problem is global, the solution has to be formed at a local level keeping the local perspective in mind.

What kind of policy changes are crucial and urgent to combat the crime of Human Trafficking?

As an organization one of our most important advocacy initiatives has been to invest the last 25 years in our own state government to get comprehensive policies for the welfare of victims. Andhra Pradesh became one of the first states in the country to initiate and implement victim support and assistance. It gave victims interim support, cash support, support for housing, pension etc. Creating a safety net specific to the state is crucial which is why extra support from the state is needed to make sure that victims get a safe space to heal, recover and reintegrate themselves into the mainstream world. E.g.: A child who is trafficked for prostitution should be given that small extra benefit of a reservation in a polytechnic college. This can make a huge difference to the lives of these children.

There is a gap that exists between the mainstream world and the victims of trafficking. This gap should be filled by the state using the right kind of policies. Every small effort that the state makes helps to build certainty for the victims. Policies can play a very important role in reassuring traumatized victims that they are supported, protected and cared for. In the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, we managed to get more than 16 policies – each of them bringing different elements, from education to health benefits, from interim relief to housing and to minimum standard of care for shelter homes.

For me, this is the biggest requirement in terms of policies. Anti-trafficking advocates across the country are investing in their own states and this can ensure better implementation of these policies on the field. Like I said, the fight for rights and the solutions have to come from a local level.

Do you think common people who are not from this domain and space can contribute towards Anti-Human Trafficking? If yes, how can they contribute?

Every single person can contribute to Anti-human trafficking work and they should contribute without a doubt. There are multiple ways to support Anti-Human Trafficking. One of the most important ways is to keep a check on the world of demand for sex. Both demand and supply are coming from our own communities and societies. It can only end or change if each one of us can contribute towards it. I would say that it is the responsibility of every family to start educating their sons to ensure that they do not generate a demand which might lead to sex trafficking. If families start taking this responsibility, it will be a very valuable contribution to our work.

Another important way of contributing is by supporting frontline work. Individuals could be alert and report. It is important to educate individuals about how they could become informers and contribute. We have a community-based prevention program that is creating this consciousness and awareness in schools, colleges, communities. We have also had instances of individuals reporting to us about trafficking in their communities when they saw that a child has not come back home for over 2 years.

Additionally, if you are an entrepreneur or a corporate, you could choose to contribute your skills to NGOs or even provide employment to survivors of trafficking. You could also ensure that your supply chain does not contribute towards trafficking.

If none of these work for you, you can always donate to Anti-Human trafficking NGOs. Sky is the limit to what each one of us can do to support the mission to end trafficking. Trafficking is a collective problem and each one of us have a moral responsibility to fight it.

What advice would you give young girls or women wanting to start an NGO or social enterprise of their own?

The first advice would be to build on your intention strategically. The world of changemakers is not an easy world and only good intention will not take you far. You will need a strategic plan to fight because there will always be resistance. You will need to have the strength of planning to be able to see results. Feeling sad for a cause will not be the only driving force towards actual change. Thus, building your capacities so that you can contribute effectively is key.

Second advice would be to start contributing towards frontline work. In this sector, we have a lot of advocates but hardly anyone on field. There are hardly any organizations doing actual rescue and rehabilitation work. In the whole of Maharashtra and Telangana, there are a handful of organizations who might be running a good rehabilitation program or running a shelter home or providing victims assistance. At the end of day, change is only possible if you take the bull by the horns which can be only be done if you are on the field tackling the issues. I would encourage every social entrepreneur to join the frontline brigade if they really want to be a change agent and have a vision for a new world.

How did COVID affect your organization’s work and was there any impact on you/your work individually as a woman?

COVID brought unique challenges for us. One significant challenge we faced was with the survivors who were reintegrated. They were on the verge of being re-trafficked because they lost their jobs, had no other support systems and were being actively pursued by their traffickers. This potential risk of being re-trafficked was dangerous and we had to work on overdrive to prevent the same. Another challenge was to ensure that people had access to relief material and were not starving. We were actively helping the community in providing relief. This meant that we had no lockdown. We were on ground throughout the lockdown. We provided relief to more than 80,000 people and provided groceries for over 3 months for 8000 people. We were also potentially at risk because of this. As an organization, we had to get systems and infrastructures in place to ensure that our employees and beneficiaries were provided all the support that we could provide them with. We set up our own quarantine unit and took complete responsibilities for our employees as well. All of this became even more challenging because funding was drastically reduced at this crucial time. We also ensured that our team felt secure about their jobs and their salaries.

While these were some of the challenges we faced, we also saw the extraordinary generosity of our children at that time. All our children came together and stitched 45,000 reusable masks which they handed over to the health department. We felt very touched with their efforts. Every day of lockdown, the children would watch the news about the migrant crisis and the COVID situation on television. At the end of the day, during our sessions in the shelter, they would share with us how they felt grateful that they were safe and had access to all the basic amenities. Hearing this made us feel contented. Thus, for us, COVID brought with it some positivity too.


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