Global Leadership Awards
All of the children playing in the shelter are survivors of sex trafficking. They are children who have been rescued from pornography, sex tourism and prostitution. They are children who have been kidnapped, lured by false promises of employment, sold by their own parents, or trapped by debt bondage. Most of them are HIV positive.
The youngest is three and a half years old.
Based in Hyderabad, India, Sunitha Krishnan is the co-founder of Prajwala (Eternal Flame), a group that rescues women and children from brothels and provides quality education to the children of prostitutes. It stands upon five pillars: prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration and advocacy. Each pillar plays an integral role in a strategy developed over 14 years by dedicated staff and myriad partners.
To stop commercial sexual exploitation before it starts, Prajwala operates a network of 18 schools in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Sunitha also leads community-based efforts that take her staff and volunteers into slums, villages, schools and colleges where they identify and connect with at-risk women and children. They know prevention is more effective than a cure.
Rescue and recovery teams coordinate with the police to infiltrate unlawful brothels. To date, Prajwala has rescued more than 4,636 women and children, 2000 of whom Sunitha liberated personally.
In the care of social workers, medical staff and peer counselors, victims slowly become survivors. Over one-third live with HIV. They must overcome daunting physical, psychological and economic challenges, and they face ongoing threats from traffickers and social stigmatization by the community.
Sunitha explains that her greatest challenge is facilitating the acceptance of survivors back in to society. To succeed, she innovated. Prajwala’s economic recovery program offers sustainable and viable livelihood options and reintegration services. Hundreds of survivors receive training as welders, carpenters, masons, security guards, cab drivers, camera operators, and screen printers. Corporate partners provide additional training and job placements that pay wages well above the national average.
The Prajwala team knows their efforts only take them so far. They work closely with partners across sectors. Sunitha helps state authorities shape anti-trafficking policies that help survivors access rehabilitation services and financial restitution. In 2010, Andra Pradesh adopted a policy she drafted establishing minimum standards of care that shelters and service providers must meet.
A world free of exploitation comes at a heavy price. Trafficking in persons is the third most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, and traffickers view Sunitha as a threat. She has been beaten up 14 times. She has been the target of acid attacks and receives regular death threats. When asked what keeps her going, she doesn’t hesitate.
“I live for the smiles of the children. I live for the hope in their eyes.”