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The Road to Independence

Sunitha Krishnan pulls women and children out of sex trade and gives them a new lease of life.


Social activist Sunitha Krishnan has rescued more than 12,500 girls from sexual slavery.

Every day, Krishnan sees firsthand, the destruction caused by this human rights abuse. Then, she turns it around. Through her Hyderabad-based organization, Prajwala, she provides these girls shelter and lifeskills training. Krishnan and her staff train them as welders, carpenters, cab drivers, masons, security guards, camera assistants and more, empowering them to support themselves and live independently. She gives them confidence and the assurance that they can rebuild their lives.

Krishnan embodies the turnaround story that she seeks to realize for each of the girls she helps. At the age of 15, she was gangraped by eight men. As Krishnan describes in a TED Talk from 2009, she doesn’t remember much about the rape itself. What she remembers is her anger in its aftermath. She was ostracized and isolated for two years following her rape, a manifestation of victim shaming.

Krishnan put her anger to use. She became a mental health professional and devoted her life to treating trafficked girls. While her efforts improve the lives of the people she rescues, Krishnan faces many challenges. She has been attacked numerous times in the course of these rescues. Because of one assault, she even lost hearing in one ear.

But the biggest challenge she faces is changing society’s mindset about the victims of sex trafficking. Too often, people and organizations don’t associate with the survivors of the sex trade. They are kept away from other children, out of people’s homes and without good jobs due to the social stigma.

However, they need to be embraced by society and given support. “They need your compassion. They need your empathy. They need, much more than anything else, your acceptance,” says Krishnan in her TED Talk.

To gain a global perspective on issues related to sex trafficking, in 1999, she participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. State Department’s exchange program for professionals. Krishnan traveled to many places in the United States, including Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco and the northern area of Nevada. She met with leaders of organizations working to combat human trafficking, like The SAGE Project in San Francisco. In Nevada, she visited the Mustang Ranch brothel to “understand prostitution in its totality,” she says.

“Even after so many years, I still distinctly remember that trip for the learning I gathered that time and some very important things that made a very big impact,” says Krishnan. “Seeing various interventions in the U.S. gave me a better perspective on how I would look at my interventions in my own country.”

The efforts to combat trafficking Krishnan witnessed in the United States didn’t translate directly into new programs in India, but they did influence Krishnan’s decisions in the years that followed.

“I understood there are other possibilities, multiple ways of doing things. Many years later, I built a community campaign called ‘Men Against Demand’ [for prostitution]. It was inspired by a legal intervention I saw in San Francisco, but I couldn’t do it exactly the same way in India because of legislative constraints,” says Krishnan.

She returned to New York in April 2015 for a one-day gathering of IVLP participants. She enjoyed the chance to learn through the program again and would like to have more consistent exchanges with the participants. Krishnan also hopes that American practitioners in her field will come to India to visit programs and understand the nuances of how things work in the country.

In the meantime, she’ll continue to pull young women and children from the throes of sexual slavery. Her request to the rest of the world remains the same as the one she expresses in her TED Talk of six years ago:

“In your limited world can you open your minds? Can you open your hearts? Can you just encompass these people too? They’re also a part of us. They’re also part of this world. … No child, no human being, deserves what these children have gone through.”


Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.