Sunitha Krishnan, born in 1972, is an Indian social activist whose unwavering commitment to the cause of rescuing, rehabilitating, and reintegrating sex-trafficked victims into society has had a profound impact on the lives of countless individuals. Her life's work has been nothing short of extraordinary, and her relentless fight against human trafficking and her dedication to victims' welfare have earned her numerous accolades and awards, including the prestigious Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian award in 2016.
Krishnan's journey into social work began at a remarkably young age. She hails from Bangalore, where her father worked for the Department of Survey, taking her to various places around the country. At the tender age of eight, Krishnan started teaching dance to mentally challenged children, igniting her passion for social work. By twelve, she was running schools for underprivileged children in the slums.
However, her life took a tragic turn at the age of fifteen when she was gang-raped by eight men while working on a neo-literacy campaign for the Dalit community. This harrowing incident, a reflection of the challenges women face in India, left her partially deaf in one ear. This trauma served as a catalyst for her life's mission, inspiring her to combat the forces of darkness that threatened the safety and dignity of women.
Krishnan's educational journey took her to Central Government Schools in Bangalore and Bhutan, culminating in a Bachelor's degree in environmental sciences from St. Joseph's College in Bangalore. She furthered her academic pursuits by completing her Master of Social Work (MSW) with a specialisation in medical and psychiatric social work from Roshni Nilaya, Mangalore.
Krishnan's path led her to Hyderabad, where she joined an organisation named People's Initiative Network (PIN) as the Coordinator for a program aimed at empowering young women. It was here that she became deeply involved in the housing issues faced by slum dwellers along the city's Musi River. Krishnan actively protested the demolition of the homes of these marginalised communities, championing their rights to shelter and dignity.
In 1996, the lives of sex workers in Hyderabad's Mehboob ki Mehandi, a red-light area, took a transformative turn. These women were evacuated from the area, leaving them homeless. Sunitha Krishnan, in collaboration with Brother Jose Vetticatil, a missionary, established a transition school at the vacated brothel to prevent the second generation from being trafficked into prostitution. In the early years of Prajwala, Krishnan displayed remarkable determination, even selling her jewellery and household items to make ends meet for the cause.
Prajwala, under Krishnan's leadership, operates on five fundamental pillars: prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration, and advocacy. The organisation provides moral, financial, legal, and social support to victims and tirelessly works to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
Today, Prajwala stands as the world's largest anti-trafficking shelter, having rescued, rehabilitated, or served over 12,000 survivors of sex trafficking. Its comprehensive approach addresses the root causes of trafficking and supports survivors throughout their recovery.
Sunitha Krishnan's impact extends far beyond her work with Prajwala. She not only leads the organisation but also spearheads an economic rehabilitation program that empowers survivors with vocational skills in carpentry, welding, printing, masonry, and housekeeping. Her influence as an activist, educator, and mentor inspires her team to stay focused on their shared mission.
Krishnan runs Prajwala as a full-time volunteer, supporting herself, with assistance from her husband, by writing books and giving speeches and seminars on trafficking worldwide. She is married to Rajesh Touchriver, an Indian filmmaker, art director, and scriptwriter who collaborates with Prajwala on films that raise awareness about trafficking and its consequences.
Krishnan's work goes beyond rescue and rehabilitation; she is deeply involved in policy-making and legal advocacy. She played a significant role in drafting recommendations for the rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims in Andhra Pradesh. Her efforts led to the passage of the Policy for Rescue & Rehabilitation of Victims of Trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, a significant step towards addressing the issue.
In 2011, Krishnan was appointed as an advisor for the Government of Kerala's Nirbhaya policy, which aimed to combat sexual violence and trafficking. She coordinated efforts between various government departments, police, health, labour, and local self-government in collaboration with NGOs. However, her frustration at the lack of political will to implement the policy led to her resignation, though she was later re-inducted with more decision-making power as Honorary Director in March 2015.
Krishnan's efforts also extend to awareness campaigns and advocacy in the United States. She launched the "Men Against Demand" campaign with the slogan "Real Men Don't Buy Sex," reaching a vast global audience. Additionally, she spearheaded the first statewide campaign against sex trafficking targeting adolescent girls, collaborating with various international funding agencies.
Sunitha Krishnan has harnessed the power of media to amplify her message. She gave a powerful speech during a TED India conference in 2009 that has inspired millions worldwide. Her appearance on Aamir Khan's television show, "Satyamev Jayate," was instrumental in garnering significant funds and networking with businesses willing to provide job placements for survivors.
She also conducted sensitisation workshops for thousands of senior police officers, judges, prosecutors, and Child Welfare Committee members, equipping them with the understanding and skills needed to combat human trafficking and advocate for child-friendly courts.
Early in her career, Krishnan ventured into filmmaking as a powerful tool for advocacy. She conceptualised and scripted 14 documentary films on socially relevant issues, including youth and HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, and incest, among others. Some of these films have received international recognition and awards.
Krishnan's collaboration with filmmaker Vineeth Sreenivasan led to the creation of the Malayalam movie "Thira," inspired by her life story. Her crowning achievement in film is "Naa Bangaaru Talli," which has won several international awards and National Awards in India.
Krishnan's commitment to research is evident in her work with Bro Jose Vetticatil, conducting action research and publishing "The Shattered Innocence." This document sheds light on inter-state trafficking from Andhra Pradesh to other states, revealing the gravity of the crime and the vulnerable communities affected.
She has also published books and manuals that provide guidance for caregivers, counsellors, and communities dealing with issues like sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and women's empowerment.
Throughout her journey, Sunitha Krishnan has faced numerous threats and physical assaults. She has been physically attacked 14 times and has received regular death threats. Her unflinching resolve to continue her crusade against human trafficking and her unwavering commitment to the cause has only strengthened her determination to make a difference.
Her influence transcends borders, and her efforts have brought about substantial change in the fight against trafficking. She was even appointed as a member of the Andhra Pradesh State Women's Commission and contributed to India's new Bill on Rape, which was passed in Parliament in 2013, increasing punitive measures for sexual violence and assault.
Krishnan's dedication and impact have been recognised through numerous awards and honours, including the Padma Shri in 2016 and various international accolades. These honours reflect the immense respect and admiration for her tireless efforts to combat sex trafficking and her unwavering dedication to improving the lives of survivors.
Sunitha Krishnan's life is a testament to the power of unwavering determination, compassion, and the belief that one person can make a profound difference in the world. Her work with Prajwala and her advocacy has changed the lives of thousands of women and children, offering them a second chance at life and the hope for a brighter future. Sunitha Krishnan's story is one of resilience, courage, and the relentless pursuit of justice for those who have suffered at the hands of human traffickers. Her legacy is an enduring source of inspiration for all who strive for positive change in the world.