Sunitha Krishnan’s Life, a Story of Struggles
Among the things that Sunitha and her team in Prajwala teach the rescued mothers and children are housekeeping, carpentry, printing, welding, and masonry. The effectiveness of Prajwala has been tested since its founding, and has indeed been proven by the number of women and children that they have saved and given a new beginning all these years.
Sunitha knows the terrible anguish and pain that a woman suffers after being “gang-raped” or trafficked for sexual purposes, as she went through the same ordeal when she was only a teenager. Sunitha also knows the kind of life that is waiting for those who had experienced being sexually harassed or raped— being shunned by society and denied the opportunity to make their life better. And while Sunitha was able to overcome her experience, she acknowledges the fact that a lot of women could not.
In an interview with her, Sunitha said:
“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.”
This kind of realization is what keeps Sunitha passionate and dedicated to what she is doing. After seeing how much prostitution has affected the women and children of her country, Sunitha decided to fight against it rather than to succumb to the seemingly overwhelming situation. Sunitha once said:
“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.”
This is what makes Sunitha so extraordinary. In spite of the risks and dangers in her profession, she still persistently and actively works to free women and children from prostitution and trafficking. Throughout her career as an activist, Sunitha has had a lot of enemies, some even threatened to take her life, but she never wavered. Sunitha firmly believes that her work has been ordained by God, and she will continue what she is doing until the time her life ends. Sunitha often says this in interviews:
“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.”
Sunitha Krishnan’s Early Biography: Humble Beginnings
Sunitha Krishnan was born in 1972 in the city of Bangalore, India, to middle-class Palakkad-based Malayali parents (Malayali refers to people who originated from the Kerala state of India who speaks Malayalam). Being born as a woman in India during those times meant a great disadvantage as the culture back then tended to look down on women—the female gender was seen as second class and commonly, the women were never given opportunities to be of significant use to their community other than being housekeepers and wives.
This was the background of Sunitha’s childhood. Growing up in the discriminating air of the neighborhood of Bangalore, Sunitha developed strength and will to be someone of importance. She wanted to be someone who would someday do something great for her fellow Indians. Aside from this, Sunitha grew up in a poor neighborhood; the seventies were a time of transition and slow prosperity, but there were still a lot of places that suffered from poverty and sickness.
This unfortunate reality empowered Sunitha to persevere and strive to become successful in life. Fortunate to be educated, Sunitha wasted no time in school and studied hard, which enabled her to not only get high remarks but also stay on top of her class (this was in spite of the teachers’ preferences to have boys in school instead of girls). Sunitha’s desire to be able to help the poor people in her neighborhood grew stronger as she matured in age. By the time she was in college, Sunitha took up a course in which she could become a social worker and fulfill her dream.
Even when she was still studying, Sunitha began to take steps that would help her gain understanding and firsthand experience of what it means to be a social worker. As early has her early teens, Sunitha was already participating in local charitable activities and working with them to be able to reach out to the poor members of the community. But while most of the people she worked with and helped showed their appreciation for her efforts, there were some, especially men, who were somewhat envious of what Sunitha was achieving, taking it as an insult to their macho population.
Gang Raped by Eight Men
Eventually, this jealousy grew to hatred and Sunitha began to receive threats from anonymous people forcing her to stop what she was doing. When Sunitha was 15 years old, a terrible tragedy happened in her life. As she was organizing a group of villagers one day so that she could teach them, a gang of eight men kidnapped and gang raped her. This experience traumatized Sunitha greatly that it tormented her for weeks after the event. But according to Sunitha, it was not the experience of being raped that really tormented her. Soon after news of her rape was revealed to the community, people, even her own family, began to look at Sunitha differently. But as she had to fight against this feeling on her own, Sunitha began to realize how the other girls had it. She said:
“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.”
Sunitha Helps Child Prostitutes
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, the experience of being raped and looked upon differently brought Sunitha to a place where she turned her anger towards the people who did it to her into something that she could use to help others. After recovering both physically, mentally, and emotionally from the experience, Sunitha began to meet up with other women who had the same experiences to try and understand more about what they were facing.
Then it began. During the 1995 Miss World contest that was held in Bangalore, Sunitha was arrested after she joined a protest against the event. During that time, the distance she felt from her family became further revealed—not only did she receive any visitors while she was in prison, but after she was released no one came to pick her up. Sunitha recalled this experience in an interview with her years later:
“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 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.”
It was truly devastating for Sunitha, but it did not bring her down nor stop her from what she wanted to do. Sometime after being released from jail, Sunitha left Bangalore and went to Hyderabad. As she was asking the mothers what help they need, one of the mother’s answered: “Forget about us. Do something for our children.” Sunitha was taken aback and the answer totally changed her perspective and gave her life a new direction.
Sunitha Contacts Orphanages to No Avail
From the normal children of poor families, Sunitha began to hear about child prostitutes. And although she wanted to help them by sending them to orphanages to give them a place to stay, most of the organizations that ran these orphanages did not want these children as they believed that the other children might be influenced negatively. It was in this time that Sunitha and her team realized that if no one took these children in, then she and her team should.
Sunitha said this in an interview:
“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.”
Sunitha Opens Prajwala, a School for Children
As a start, Sunitha and her team built a school for these children. Prajwala was born. Initially, it was really a struggle for Sunitha and her co-founders, as they did not have a lot and had to work their way in getting the children helped. However, this did not discourage them from continuing what they were doing. As time went by, through the perseverance and passion of Sunitha and her fellow workers, Prajwala began to receive attention from people, and the work began to expand. From Hyderabad, Prajwala expanded its rescue efforts to the state of Andhra Pradesh.
UNICEF and UNIFEM Helps Prajwala
Eventually, Prajwala became well-known which caught the attention of large organizations, such as UNICEF and UNIFEM, organizations that not only lent a hand by supporting Prajwala financially but also gave them additional credibility. With this kind of exposure, Prajwala was able to extend its reach into various places in India such as Delhi and Bombay. With the growing popularity and credibility of the organization, some government officials started to take notice and support Prajwala.
As the number of rescued children and women grew, Sunitha and her team also started building more schools and facilities that would cater those that were rescued. They also started to integrate livelihood programs for young girls to help them get back into society and become productive members. At first, it was quite of a struggle because Prajwala was the first organization of its kind to explore the possibility of social partnership, but through several organizations like the International Organization for Migration which partnered with Prajwala, Sunitha and her team were able to successfully implement the program for the young women.
Partnership has played a big role in the expansion and success of Prajwala. Sunitha often recalls and greatly appreciates all of the people and groups that partnered with Prajwala—not just the kind of partnership where people gave money to the organization, but the kind of partnership where people actually stepped in and assisted in the work of rescuing and rehabilitating the children and young women.
In an interview made with her, Sunitha emphasized the importance of partnership:
“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. Today I know hundreds and thousands of wonderful police officers, who do so much to help. This is 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.”
Accomplishments, Recognitions, and Awards
In 2009, Sunitha was privileged to be invited to speak at the TEDIndia conference at the Infosys Campus at Mysore. Her speech was greatly applauded and brought tremendous emotion to the audience. According to the Shambala Sun Report, Sunitha’s speech in TEDIndia literally “brought the house down” as she told story after story of women who, in the midst of unimaginable pain and anguish, found the will to survive and move on with their life. The publication wrote on the report:
“She brought the house down in Mysore today. And by that, I mean that she broke hearts and moved people to action. Her strong voice and powerful body language ensured that no one could claim to have misunderstood her points.”
Because of her outstanding passion and resolve in fighting for the children and young women who are being trafficked and sold into prostitution, Sunitha has become a recipient of a number of awards and recognitions. Among these prestigious awards are the Global Leadership Award, the Real Heroes Award and the Safdar Hashmi Award for Human Rights. In 2011, Sunitha was named Person of the Year by Indiavision for her extraordinary efforts in saving children and young women from trafficking and giving them new hope.
Personal Life: Blessed a Loving Husband and Adorable Children
In spite of the harsh life that she experienced, Sunitha found love and got married to Rajesh Touchriver, a filmmaker, art director and scriptwriter. Sunitha bore Rajesh two children and are today still happily married. Rajesh supports Sunitha and is one of her major sources of encouragement.
Sunitha’s life is a constant reminder of what it means to rise up from the ashes and get lifted up on wings like eagles. In spite of going through such a painful and tremendous experience, Sunitha found hope and courage and stood up from where she was, moving forward with her life and using that experience to help others.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- LEGER Foundation
- Partner India
- Catholic Relief Services
Awards and Achievements
- 2007: Received the Perdita Huston International Award for Human Rights
- 2008: Received the Real Heroes Award from UNODC for her contributions to combat human trafficking
- 2008: Received the Real Heroes Award from Reliance Industries Limited and CNN-IBN Network
- 2009: Named as the Woman of the Year by Vanitha
- 2011: Named as the Person of the Year by Indiavision
- 2011: Received the Global Leadership Award
- 2012: Received the Safdar Hashmi Award for Human Rights