SUNITHA KRISHNAN

India,

Sunitha Krishnan is making it possible for India's government and citizen organizations to manage jointly a range of protective and rehabilitative services for children who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.

This profile below was prepared when Sunitha Krishnan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.
MEDIA MENTIONS
International Award for Prajwala, Global Giving, June 27, 2007

Additional information on this Fellow is also available in English and English.

Fellow Sketch

Dr Sunitha Krishnan is instituting a clear mindset shift towards survivors of human trafficking in the criminal justice system. Sunitha’s strategy creates empathy for the victims of trafficking among authorities through the practices of co-management and awareness building. 

Prajwala, Sunitha’s organisation, underscores co-management as the cornerstone of their strategy to overcome isolation between survivors and authorities. Sunitha forged proactive partnerships with the Police, Judiciary and the Civic Bodies to address the problem of trafficking as a whole, effectively covering the whole spectrum from rescue to reintegration of survivors. Sunitha empowers police, lawmakers and civic officials with critical knowledge through training programs, and workshops aimed at transforming perceptions and mindsets towards survivors. Prajwala equips the survivors with psychological and economic rehabilitation through Therapeutic Homes, and Employability Training Units by identifying need-based, aptitude based, market assessed, viable and sustainable economic options. The survivors are provided with electoral photo identity cards, food ration cards and health cards. Since Prajwala’s inception, over 5081 women were reintegrated with their families, more than 80 survivors have gotten married, 115 girls received government housing and 30 more are living in group homes. 

Sunitha has led policy change and advocacy at the state, national and international levels to ensure lasting systemic changes. Originally drafted by Sunitha, The Nirbhaya scheme fund is being jointly implemented by various government departments like social welfare, SC/ST, police, health, labor and local self-government in coordination with NGOs. Also, for the first time in the country, in the Supreme Court public interest litigation was filed for a Victim Protection Act by Prajwala, which has made the Government of India consider victim protection protocols at every stage from rescue to reintegration.

 Globally, Sunitha has evolved universal parameters for best reintegration practices for the United States Department of Justice. ‘Friends of Prajwala’ Volunteer networks in the United States, Switzerland, Canada and Australia have played a pivotal role in facilitating a global movement to combat trafficking. Through social media, conferences, awareness programs and sensitization events, Prajwala has reached close to 7 million people in India and throughout the world.

 Sunitha is laser focused on creating ecosystems that are deep rooted in sustainability and succession through co-management with key stakeholders. Sensitizing society towards the dehumanizing trade of human trafficking, Prajwala continues to lobby for an inclusive environment through  changes in perceptions and mindsets towards survivors. 

This profile was updated in September 2014. Read on for the election profile.

 

Fellow Sketch

Dr Sunitha Krishnan is instituting a clear mindset shift towards survivors of human trafficking in the criminal justice system. Sunitha’s strategy creates empathy for the victims of trafficking among authorities through the practices of co-management and awareness building. 

Prajwala, Sunitha’s organisation, underscores co-management as the cornerstone of their strategy to overcome isolation between survivors and authorities. Sunitha forged proactive partnerships with the Police, Judiciary and the Civic Bodies to address the problem of trafficking as a whole, effectively covering the whole spectrum from rescue to reintegration of survivors. Sunitha empowers police, lawmakers and civic officials with critical knowledge through training programs, and workshops aimed at transforming perceptions and mindsets towards survivors. Prajwala equips the survivors with psychological and economic rehabilitation through Therapeutic Homes, and Employability Training Units by identifying need-based, aptitude based, market assessed, viable and sustainable economic options. The survivors are provided with electoral photo identity cards, food ration cards and health cards. Since Prajwala’s inception, over 5081 women were reintegrated with their families, more than 80 survivors have gotten married, 115 girls received government housing and 30 more are living in group homes. 

Sunitha has led policy change and advocacy at the state, national and international levels to ensure lasting systemic changes. Originally drafted by Sunitha, The Nirbhaya scheme fund is being jointly implemented by various government departments like social welfare, SC/ST, police, health, labor and local self-government in coordination with NGOs. Also, for the first time in the country, in the Supreme Court public interest litigation was filed for a Victim Protection Act by Prajwala, which has made the Government of India consider victim protection protocols at every stage from rescue to reintegration.

Globally, Sunitha has evolved universal parameters for best reintegration practices for the United States Department of Justice. ‘Friends of Prajwala’ Volunteer networks in the United States, Switzerland, Canada and Australia have played a pivotal role in facilitating a global movement to combat trafficking. Through social media, conferences, awareness programs and sensitization events, Prajwala has reached close to 7 million people in India and throughout the world. 

Sunitha is laser focused on creating ecosystems that are deep rooted in sustainability and succession through co-management with key stakeholders. Sensitizing society towards the dehumanizing trade of human trafficking, Prajwala continues to lobby for an inclusive environment through  changes in perceptions and mindsets towards survivors. 

This profile was updated in September 2014. Read on for the Election Profile.

INTRODUCTION

Sunitha Krishnan is making it possible for India's government and citizen organizations to manage jointly a range of protective and rehabilitative services for children who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.




THE NEW IDEA

Sunitha has a blueprint for citizen-state collaboration in dealing with the widespread trafficking of children, a problem that is largely hidden. Although laws, activists, and organizations are already devoted to this issue, the overall approach has been too piecemeal and reactive to make much of a dent in the systemic problems that permit trafficking to thrive. Sunitha, who knows the dangers of this work as well as anyone, sees a solution in a system of joint management and mutual accountability between state authorities and the civil sector.

Sunitha recognizes the strengths and limitations of both the citzen and state sectors. The state alone has the money and authority to liberate, house, and protect children on a larger scale. But money and authority are not enough. In fact, when these resources are misused they compound misery rather than alleviate it. The citizen sector has the drive, insight, and creativity needed to help the state put its money and authority to the right use. But in the area of trafficking and child protection, civil society lacks the structure and coordination, in addition to the money and mandate that would enable it to deal with this complex problem. It is not that organizations do not take on trafficking, as there are many that do and succeed nobly. But the lack of political support limits the ultimate systemic impact.

An important object of Sunitha's reform is the existing system of "transit homes" run by the state. Transit homes are supposed to function as safe houses and rehabilitation centers, but in reality they are often dysfunctional way stations from which children emerge in worse condition than when they entered. By reorganizing so that citizen organizations can manage and monitor transit homes together within the state, Sunitha lifts the veil of secrecy that often permits abuse under the neglectful eye of the state working alone. She further extends the role of the transit home to include improved counseling and family reintegration. Joint management allows citizen organizations a voice and some oversight in the running of the homes, but it does not burden them with the challenge of fundraising and bureaucracy that would be required if they were to compete by establishing their own homes. While on the local level joint management puts new, perhaps unwelcome, scrutiny on police, transit home staff, and caseworkers, it also fosters better state regulation by placing all local efforts under a comprehensive state-level rescue and rehabilitation policy. Sunitha's strategy is to move from several successful state policies to an encompassing national mandate.




THE PROBLEM

Widespread trafficking of children for sex is a grim reality in India. It is a problem that hides behind underground networks, criminal gangs, corrupt officials, and a culture of impunity. These barriers obstruct society's view of the scale and intricacies of trafficking. It becomes difficult to determine the impact trafficking has on children and families. The barriers block the kinds of coordinated, consistent programs needed to combat the problem. One study of four major cities–Bombay, Calcutta, Hyderabad, and Delhi–found about two million prostitutes, 40 percent of whom were under 18. About a quarter were under 16. More comprehensive numerical data are hard to find because only girls in known brothels were counted. Girls working as bartenders or waitresses who double as prostitutes and girls trafficked for pornography and sex tourism would expand both the overall number and the percentage of prostitutes who are children.

Once a young girl is under the control of a brothel, pimp, or agent, she undergoes a rough introduction or "breaking in," to her new profession. She is gang-raped, hit, given drugs and alcohol, and locked up. Compounding this abuse is constant exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, the end of her education (if it ever began), and the start of a life of a social outcast. The psychological repercussions are so deep as to be unfathomable.

Virtually all of these children have been "trafficked" in some way. Whether they are sold by their parents to pay a debt, tricked by relatives bearing false promises of employment, kidnapped from their villages, or lured off the streets, all are too young to consent legally to sexual intercourse, let alone consent to providing sex for money. Child prostitution is illegal, of course, yet the persistence of trafficking is not solely a problem of poor law enforcement. The 1992 Indian National Plan of Action deals with children in prostitution, but like most other government documents, it does not recognize child trafficking per se as an issue for action. Trafficking is, however, the mechanism that supplies children to brothels, pedophiles, and pornography rings. Prosecuting individual acts of prostitution, which are hard enough to prove, leaves intact the systemic problem of trafficking.

One symptom of this legal shortsightedness is the concentration of energy on "raid-and-rescue" of children from brothels and agents–an important act of intercession, but not a durable solution. Under national and international pressure, the government is involved in sporadic actions, and rescued children are dumped in transit homes that are not equipped for the responsibilities they face. In the worst homes, sexual abuse continues, and children may eventually be trafficked once again, sent back into the sex trade. The better homes may just let the children survive in the wake of their trauma and hand them over to their families if they can be found. In most cases, however, retrafficking is common, and no attempts are made for reunion. A lack of resources and planning devoted to other aspects of rehabilitation has meant that temporary shelter, counseling, and family reunion have not been developed. The government usually defends its homes by saying that it does the best it can on a limited budget.

The absence of a national policy on rescue and rehabilitation is resulting in all kinds of ad hoc and disjointed programs by state governments. The present scene is the water-tight compartmentalization of police, the department of women's and children's development, the education department, the social welfare department, and the judiciary. All operate virtually independently of the others, leaving the fate of abused children back in the hands of those who really take the greatest interest in their future–the traffickers.

While the impact of a solitary raid is small, it suggests that cooperation between state authorities and citizen groups can work, does work, and should be pursued. Yet the police, judiciary, juvenile homes, and citizens have no clearly defined, agreed on, understood roles. Sunitha explains that there is no policy at the government level to ensure the state will address the issue. The government did not acknowledge the existence of child prostitution until recently. Sunitha further notes that the proposed State Rescue-Rehabilitation Policy works as a comprehensive framework to address the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration process of child victims of sexual exploitation through transit homes, comanaged by citizen sector organizations.




THE STRATEGY

Sunitha's plan to integrate comanagement of transit houses throughout India has three steps. First, Sunitha is beginning her work in Andhra Pradesh. Second, by creating and lobbying for a Comprehensive Rescue and Rehabilitation Policy, she forces states and the national government to recognize the value of collaboration and commit to it. And third, she is creating demand among citizen sector organizations and sympathetic government workers so that they can invoke the policy and use it in their work.

Sunitha is currently one of the members of the State Coordination committee for comanagement. Through her organization Prajwala, Sunitha is jointly managing the juvenile home for girls with effective counseling, education, life skills training, and reintegration back to families. This venture is the first of its kind in India. The model is being replicated in Goa, Madhya Pradesh, and Nepal.

Sunitha conducted a study on intrastate and interstate trafficking in Andhra Pradesh that served as a powerful tool to convince the state government to issue a draft policy on rescue and rehabilitation. From her base in Hyderabad, Sunitha has developed a network for a wider campaign to promote this policy and its implementation. One of the key elements in the policy document is putting citizen groups on an equal footing–realizing the "co" in comanagement. Sunitha is training trauma counselors at the transit homes to function at district level for effective reintegration. In accordance with the state policy, she is now involved in developing linkages with the state and district coordination committees that are the key players in tackling both the demand and supply side of trafficking.

Given the government's increased attention to the issue in the light of the draft policy, more children are being successfully rescued and prepared for reintegration with their families and society. As an example, children from Andhra Pradesh who are rescued, say, from Delhi, Mumbai, or Calcutta are directly referred to Prajwala, which has a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for such girls.

About 15 organizations in the state of Andhra Pradesh alone are part of the network to develop both citizen groups and mass organizations for prevention, education, rescue, rehabilitation, and follow-up. The village groups called grama panchayaths are also enlisted as watchdogs to prevent and report on local trafficking. Sunitha is in constant touch with groups from Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi that are now taking cues from Sunitha's strategies to bring in a state rescue policy. The state of Maharashtra is seeking advice from the state of Andhra Pradesh on how to adopt a similar policy.

With these networks empowered to take up more comprehensive work, Sunitha is demonstrating the full range of activities that properly fall under the rehabilitation umbrella. To help girls who want to give up the profession, Sunitha has successfully brought in entrepreneurial skills training by involving other organizations and trades, like welding, driving, carpentry, and construction. Many of the older girls rescued from various parts of India are being trained by Amul, a leading Dairy Development Cooperative, to manage their pizza corners. These lessons are an integral part of the state rescue and rehabilitation policy.

Sunitha claims that there is no model for this citizen sector work. "This is an example to the governments in India that we need to undo how we have collectively failed to protect our children," Sunitha says. "A Rescue and Rehabilitation Policy gives way for concrete action leaving behind ad hoc activism."




THE PERSON

Sunitha has been attracted to working with communities since her school days. Sunitha saw most of the country early on while traveling from one place to another with her father, who worked with the Department of Survey which makes maps for the entire country. Hailing from Kerala, Sunitha studied in Central Government Schools in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, and the Northeastern parts of India.

Sunitha was one of the student leaders who initiated Sadbhavana (Goodwill), a student association, to take up community work with the Dalit community outside of Bangalore. She was 19 years old at the time. Returning alone from a meeting one day with the Dalit community, Sunitha was brutally attacked by higher-caste youth who opposed her presence. The aftermath was tragic. Unable to come to terms with this situation, one of Sunitha's classmates, who was to have escorted her home, committed suicide. Understandably, this had a terrible effect on Sunitha. The whole community, including her near and dear ones, blamed Sunitha, rejected her, and branded her a troublemaker. As a result, the shattered Sunitha decided to work with the most oppressed, stigmatized, and exploited class of society.

After obtaining a degree in environmental sciences, she shifted her studies to social work. While most of the students were taking noncontroversial and traditional subjects for their fieldwork and their Ph.D., Sunitha decided to work with prostitutes, a taboo subject. Her research findings and conclusions initially supported legalizing prostitution, a position she reconsidered once she started working with prostitutes in Hyderabad. With personal experience in many raids, Sunitha has realized that without a meaningful state policy, no amount of social work and activism at the micro level is enough to be helpful.