Saint of the streets

 

Sunitha Krishnan

It is a morning ritual that Sunitha Krishnan rarely misses – scanning the classifieds in various dailies as she sits in her office behind the Sunitha Krishnan: “If earlier, of the 10 girls rescued eight would go back (to prostitution), now eight stay” Charminar, sipping her morning cuppa. She circles a few ‘earn Rs 10,000-a-day’ ads and decides to get cracking on them. This, she says, is the latest strategy adopted by her 13-year-old organisation, Prajwala, against traffickers operating under the garb of ads.
It was personal trauma 18 years ago that made Krishnan dedicate her life to the cause of saving children from traffickers. When she started Prajwala, most of the victims, either forced or tricked into the trade, came from poor families. Now, educated girls from middle-class backgrounds are getting sucked into this murky world. Ads, like the ones she marks out these days – which call for “models looking for plum assignments” or “film shoots” in Mumbai – are the modern traps laid out for gullible, starry-eyed women.
What makes Krishnan’s work stand out is her absolute reluctance to put up rescued girls in destitute homes, giving them needlework lessons in the name of imparting vocational skills. In her moving, powerful speech at a conference last year, Krishnan said her biggest challenge remains to “respectfully rehabilitate” these women and change the mindset of society so that it accepts them with dignity.
Krishnan goes about her task forging partnerships with various police departments – “You can’t achieve anything by working in isolation,” she says – and particularly the Women Protection Cell, the Anti Human Trafficking Unit. But there are corporate houses too. With help from them, Krishnan has ensured placements for rescued victims, who get trained according to their interest and literacy level. While many have found jobs in the hospitality sector, there are those who work as medical care attendants, housekeeping personnel and even security guards. “There is a strict confidentiality clause that employers sign when they recruit these girls. No one’s past is revealed,” Krishnan says. The battle, however, doesn’t end there. “Since the bosses know their background, the girls are under scrutiny 24×7. I often get calls complaining how one of my girls is chatting with a young male colleague and that I should ask them not to do so,” she says. But it is a hurdle she doesn’t mind as long as the girls are able to shed the ‘victim’ tag with dignity and discover their real identity. Having rescued 3,300 girls from traffickers since 1996, Prajwala has been able to rehabilitate an amazing 2,800. “If earlier, of the 10 girls rescued eight would go back (to prostitution), now eight stay,” she says. She is anxiously waiting for the day when all of them decide to stay back. “Then I can happily close my shop.”

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