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Sunitha Krishnan
is a leader in the anti-trafficking movement, accelerating the momentum toward ending violence against women in India. She spoke at a Vital Voices event last month, “Addressing Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in India,” where she was asked a critical question: What drives you?

Her answer may surprise some, but shouldn’t, given the current outrage over this issue in her country: “Anger.” 

Sunitha was gang raped when she was 15-years-old. The anger she felt afterward is what drove her to action, and eventually, to co-found Prajwala, an organization that provides comprehensive services to survivors of trafficking. Instead of seeing herself as a victim, Sunitha says she has tried to “harness the power in the pain,” as a force for awareness and activism.

Anger to Action for Sunitha

When asked about the December 2012 Delhi rape case, in which 23-year-old Jyoti Singh was brutally assaulted and later died from massive injuries, Sunitha told our audience about another violent sexual crime that  happened on the same day.

On December 16, she was attending the funeral of a four-year-old girl in Hyderabad, who was raped by 12 men, and for whom there was no outcry or public demonstration. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, rape happens every 20 minutes in India, after all.

“My anger is channeled into creating opportunities and possibilities. It’s possible to be a survivor and to build momentum with a network of survivors.”

It’s this sense of mission that drives the work of Prajwala (Eternal Flame), which 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. To date, Prajwala has rescued, rehabilitated, or served 8,211 survivors of sex trafficking, and the scale of their operations makes them the largest anti-trafficking shelter in the world. What is distinct about Sunitha’s approach is that of the 218 Prajwala team members, 70 percent are survivors of sex trafficking themselves. They design and implement programs to rehabilitate others, a core component of Prajwala’s approach.

Even with an effective model and strong team Sunitha says that the difficulties they face are tremendous. “Rescue is a cakewalk compared to what happens next.” Survivors are drawn from a range of experiences, from women who have spent their adulthood in brothels to HIV positive children, some of whom have been raped up to 50 times.

Sunitha’s comprehensive approach to rehabilitation is the answer to these challenging cases. “Rehabilitation isn’t just about jobs; it’s about psychological healing, economic empowerment and civic identity.” Sunitha argues that skills help survivors overcome stigma. When people see a woman employed as a welder or a security guard, they no longer view her as a victim.

Prajwala’s achievements reach beyond the shelter, in part because of her partnerships with men. Sunitha recently produced a feature film about a victim of sex trafficking, Ente, that has reached 20,000 men, she estimates. “What I couldn’t do in the last 20 years one two-hour film is doing now,” she noted, citing men who have seen the film and report being “transformed.” She also launched the Men Against Demand campaign with the slogan “Real Men Don’t Buy Sex” and has reached 1.8 billion people worldwide. Some men who used to buy sex have become Prajwala’s supporters, helping to investigate child sex trafficking.

Anger to Action for India

The Delhi rape case created such a reaction across India that some changes have begun to take shape. On February 3, the Indian President passed an executive ordinance that increases criminal penalties for sexual violence. The law defines trafficking for the first time, criminalizes sexual harassment and stalking, and increases sentencing allowances – even introducing capital punishment for fatal rape cases.

There is still work to be done. Marital rape is still not criminalized. The law is in effect, but the parliament will soon vote for final approval. “Our challenge now in India is to continue to engage with government, to ensure that the pressure is sustained,” said Sunitha.

Sunitha points out that much of the needed change is not in legislation. Although child marriage is illegal in India, the country holds the highest number of child brides in the world. Khap Panchayats, unelected councils of elders, wield significant power but do not always promote human rights. Some elements of the news media identify rape survivors exclusively as “victims,” or harass them into altering their stories. A recent UN Women study indicates that even before the December 16 rape case, 95% of women felt unsafe in public spaces. And the demand for sex trafficking continues in spite of the law.

Sunitha’s anger drives her focused action, every day. India’s anger has resulted in some focused legal change, but comprehensive reform has not yet materialized.



Megan Abbot is Vital Voices program coordinator, Human Rights.

Pictured above: Sunitha Krishnan (L), Melysa Sperber (R)