New Delhi: She’s dodged an acid attack, had a fatwa issued against her and survived 17 separate physical assaults. But Sunitha Krishnan, 46, doesn’t seem to be the sort of person to be easily disheartened. The founder of Prajwala, an organisation that describes itself as a “pioneering anti-trafficking organisation working on the issue of sex trafficking and sex crime”, has just been chosen as one of three finalists for the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, a global humanitarian award established to recognize modern day heroes. The prize-winner gets $100,000 (Rs 66.3 lakh) and an additional $1,000,000 (Rs 6.63 crore) to distribute to organisations doing humanitarian work.

Prajwala began as a rehabilitation centre in a converted brothel in Hyderabad. Today, said Krishnan, it has rescued 20,000 girls and women from forced sexual labour and successfully rehabilitated 18,500 of these, giving them livelihood skills such as welding or carpentry that will enable them to lead independent lives. With space for 1,200 women and girls, Prajwala is, said Krishnan, the largest shelter home in the world. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Gang-rape, particularly the rape of little girls including a four-month-old baby, has dominated media headlines for some weeks now leading to protests all over the world. The President has just signed an ordinance that imposes the death sentence on those convicted of raping girls below the age of 11. What is your response to this ordinance?

I think it is a welcome move. The intention is right. But any legislation that comes as a reactive response is, according to me, not very sustainable.

There are a whole lot of things that have to be put in place before the actual legislation starts working. If your police stations are hostile to children, if your hospitals are hostile to children, if your courts are hostile to children, then how will children even testify in court?

I’m an advocate of a sex offenders registry and of a sex offenders support programme. All this is what is going to bring the change.

I am somebody who believes that the death penalty can act as a great deterrent provided it is done on a speedy trial basis and is executed in a time-bound manner. If you have somebody who is convicted of a gang-rape and is now living as a state guest in my jail for five years now, then how is deterrent going to come?

But in a democracy surely you must be allowed a process of appeal.

The bigger impunity in our country comes from the fact that we can get away from law. It’s just about going to the highest authority.

That is where my reservation about the ordinance comes into play. As a front-liner on a day-to-day basis, I don’t see this working out on the ground. A whole lot of infrastructure has to be put in place before something like this can actually work in a way in which it should be working.

You have to create a system that is victim-friendly. You are supposed to have designated children’s courts in the country but there are hardly any. Children don’t seem to be a priority in this country. They become a priority only when there is public outrage.

You already have death sentence for rape in the 2013 Criminal Law (amendment) Act. Given that 94.6% of sexual violence against children in 2016 is, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, by men known to them, including fathers, brothers, uncles, wouldn’t you think that reporting would come down when you bring in such an ordinance?

Any crime committed by a known family member is, in my eyes, an aggravated crime. It is not just a violation of the body but also a violation of trust. It shakes the very fabric of society and, therefore, the punishment should be higher.

Yes, it is a problem that crimes of this type get less reported because a large percentage are done by known members of the family. But things are changing.

It is not that rape is going up in the country but that more and more cases are being reported. You are talking about the rape of four-month-old babies as if this is happening for the first time in our country. It is just that families are feeling more confident about reporting today. Ten or 20 years back, the entire system would ostracise them. Today more and more families and people believe that if we speak up, we will not be ostracised.

The more that society outrages, the more these cases will be reported. When a hashtag is created for Asifa, then all the other Asifas in the country will also stand up. They feel, “If people can stand by her, then maybe people will also stand by me.”

You yourself were gang-raped by eight men when you were just 15. Looking back what were your coping mechanisms? Did you face stigmatisation and isolation because you were a victim? And have social attitudes to rape survivors changed much in the 26 years since?

When I went through what I went through there was absolute hostility and the entire blame was squarely fixed on me. My parents had no clue about how to deal with me. They couldn’t even fathom what they should say. What helped me was my own connect with myself. I derived my strength from my own being, from the power I could harness from the pain inside.

Every day so many child victims are dumped in my home because the family feels dishonoured. They feel that if the child continues to stay with them, they cannot handle the shame and that it will impact other members of the family.

I faced this. And I see people facing it even today--you are asked to stay away from a family function or a social function because you will then become the topic of discussion. You are told, ‘you will spoil the function for us’. That is the shaming and ostracisation that victims go through even today. It is less but it has not gone away.

And yet, we don’t ostracise the rapist. The rapist does not go through stigma. They are legally represented in the court. An example of this is the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda [Gurmeet Ram Rahim] who is a convicted sex offender. There were people who actually went on a rampage for him. In Kathua, lawyers came out in favour of alleged rapists. That is the mindset. As long as that doesn’t change, there cannot be change for the victim on the ground. And this is how it is everywhere in the world--victim-shaming, ostracising the victim while people who rape have a heyday.

More than 18 million people in India live in conditions of modern slavery that includes sex work, domestic work, manual labour and even forced marriages. According to Dasra, 80% of all women and children in the sex trade have been trafficked. But only 8,132 cases of trafficking were reported in all of 2016. How do you explain this huge gap between the extent of the problem and its prosecution in law?

Reporting under National Crime Records Bureau is problematic because a clear application of the law does not happen across the country. For instance, a lot of reported cases are being booked under the Immoral Trafficking Act and not as trafficking.

I alone rescue 60 girls a month. That means a minimum of 40 FIRs. But I don’t know if all these 40 FIRs are entering into NCRB data. So data from NCRB need not to be the right data.

Regardless, your own website talks about the huge numbers living in conditions of modern slavery.

I would say three million women and children are in sex slavery in India. I don’t accept the term sex trade, I prefer the term sex slavery. Of these, 45% are children. And hardly 7% ever get rescued.

So we are not doing enough as a society.

Not at all. If we were, then Prajwala would not be required. What we are doing is miniscule. We still haven’t got a comprehensive legislation. The bill is still awaiting Parliamentary approval.

Tell me about the bill.

Well, I am responsible for this new bill because it came out as a direction to my Supreme Court PIL [public interest litigation] that I had filed in 2003.

I welcome it, because at least from nothing there is now something. For the first time, the government is thinking of a victim-centred approach. For the first time, an organised crime is being recognised as an organised crime and an organised mechanism is being created to fight it. For the first time, a budget is being given in the name of rehabilitation. It is one of the most promising victim-centric legislations to have come out and I hope it is passed in the next session.

Human trafficking is a pervasive but invisible crime. In your 2009 TED talk, you mention that the biggest challenge you face is to break the silence. Can you explain how?

The biggest problem is that people don’t think trafficking can happen to them. They think it is a problem of the poor or the marginalised or some Dalit child. They don’t understand how their own children could be vulnerable. That denial is to me one of the biggest problems because as long as you’re going to see this as someone else’s problem, your response is going to be, “Could it really be that bad?”

Today more than ever with technology, you have to recognise that the crime can target any child anywhere from a middle class or upper middle class family. Everybody is vulnerable to be sex trafficked for cyber pornography or cyber trafficking.

The response must come from each one of us. We all have to take a call within ourselves and that to me is what breaking the silence is all about.

You need to talk to your sons to not become the reason why these girls are being trafficked. They should not constitute the demand. As a parent, how do I break the silence within my family so that I am not a part of the problem? If a five-year-old child is being sold in a brothel, it means that some man somewhere in India wants to rape her. That man is not coming from some other planet. He is our brother or father or somebody from amongst us.

We rarely see what actually happens to women and girls after they are rescued. What are the challenges in rehabilitating them? Condition of shelter homes is quite bad and there is terrible stigma for women and girls, so how do we ensure that they do not lapse back into forced sex work again?

(Laughs) That’s a big question that I will try and answer it as simply as possible.

Being trafficked leaves irreversible damage to the body, mind and soul of a person. When a person enters a safe space, like a protection service, this particular damage has to be tackled--whether it is bodily damage in terms of the hundreds of illnesses she has gained through the process of being trafficked or her psychological damage in terms of the pain and trauma.

Many who are trafficked will, over a number of days, normalise the process and will develop an attachment to the trafficker. It’s called the Stockholm syndrome.

So any safe space in the garb of a shelter home has to tackle all these problems. But, the fact is that most shelter homes do not have a holistic plan to help these girls to recover.

Prajwala is perhaps one of the most powerful demonstrations of what a rehabilitation programme should be. One of the many things that it does is to not only prepare this child or adult for a life outside, but also prepare them to deal with the stigma and rejection outside.

On one end we are giving her the education she wants or the livelihood training she wants. At the other end, we are preparing her for the entitlements she should get from the government whether it is housing or ration cards or Aadhar card. Most important we see that she can be the kind of person who can tackle rejection from society because no matter how much we talk, people on the ground have problems in accepting these girls back into their fold.

Even families have serious reservations about accepting their own daughters. It changes when a girl comes economically empowered and if she’s standing on her own feet, has a house in her own name and so on.

So rehabilitation is not an overnight process and takes a lot of effort. It requires a correct enabling environment. Just running a house and giving boarding and lodging does mean rehabilitation. Sometimes we have to monitor the girl for three years to ensure that she is safe and safely reintegrated.

(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes frequently on the gender issues confronting India.)

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