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Sunitha krishnan readers-digest-article-oct2008


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Sunitha krishnan readers-digest-article-oct2008

  1. 1. • ntre 1 f She saves the innocent and pursues the guiltyAs applause erupts around her, nan felicitate students whove done16-year-old Seema*, dressed in a white well in their 10th-standard exams.salwar-kameez, accepts a box contain- Going by the cheerful hubbub, it coulding a pair of gold earrings. Beaming, be prize-giving day at any girls school.the slender, elegant girl bends down In fact, most of the 120 children here-and touches the feet of the petite some as young as three-are victimswoman beside me. of sexual exploitation whom Sunitha Im in the courtyard of Astha Nivas, has rescued. Many, like Seema, werea childrens home in the old part of subjected to horrifying sexual abuseHyderabad, watching Sunitha Krish- for years; nearly all are HIV positive. • Asterisked names have been changed. But thanks to the love and attention100 READERS DIGEST OCTOBER 2008
  2. 2. they receive at Astha Nivas, they have her crusade in 1991, Sunitha has been stalled the scheme. but she trusted her instincts and hera good chance of overcoming their beaten up more than a dozen times. In early 1997, following a court informants and was able to pull it off.dark pasts. Thats why she cant straighten her order, the police evicted prostitutes Initially, the children she rescued were left arm or hear in her right ear. A from Mehboob-ki-Mehndi, a notori- placed in missionary and charitableEach pair of the pretty earrings that Sumo van once deliberately rammed ous Hyderabad red light area. Carried juvenile homes; later she started herSeema and 13 other students received her autorickshaw, but she escaped out with typical bureaucratic ham- own costs Rs3000. "Wont some of serious injury. Shes had acid flung at handedness, hundreds of prostitutes Slowly, Prajwala**, as Sunitha andthe girls be tempted to sell the jew- her (fortunately it missed), and theres were suddenly homeless. Desperate, Jose named their organization, tookellery?" I ask. even been a poisoning attempt. many committed suicide. on additional responsibilities. Today, Sunitha bristles at the suggestion. Far from being intimidated by aU By this time, Sunitha had become apart from Astha Nivas, the childrens"Theyre not just girls," she snaps. this, Sunitha, 36, has even refused friendly with a Catholic brother shelter, Prajwala has five day schools"Theyre my daughters. If your daugh- police protection. She says attacks on named Jose Vetticatil, who was just as for the children of prostitutes inters did well in their exams, wouldnt her are to be expected, given her committed to helping the underpriv- Hyderabad and a residential facilityyou give them something valuable?" mission. in the city called The curt reply is typical of Sunithas Sunitha has always wanted to help Asha Niketan, for rescued adultresponse to any aspersions cast on hercharges. But shes not just their fiercely other people: as a child, shed return home from school and teach the e pre )lst.itutt;~, the hegan women. It hasprotective mother; shes also an in- neighbourhood children what shed tc lIng l1cr abOUl also helped other NGOs set up andtrepid and determined foe of Indiashuge and powerful commercial sex in-dustry. In the last to years, she has res- learned. By her teens, shed decided to work for the underprivileged. especially women victimized and children in brothels. run 17 day care centres for pros-cued around 2000 victims of sexual disdained by society. She plunged into iJeged. Sunitha and he met the evicted tituted womens children acrossslavery. She has persuaded the Andhra a number of causes and also got a mas- women who said they wanted their Andhra Pradesh.Pradesh government to work with her ters in psychiatric social work. children to be educated so that they, While the children at Astha Nivasin cracking down on this organized In 1996, Sunitha, an ardent feminist. too, didnt end up in the sex trade. and the day schools are educated upcrime and helped secure the convic- was arrested-along with more than a Sunitha set up a classroom for five to the seventh standard and thention of more than a dozen traffickers. dozen other activists-for protesting children in an empty brothel, and transferred to private high schools,Says Dr P.M. Nair. senior police officer against the staging of the Miss World became its first teacher. the older victims are trained in aand leading anti-trafficking expert: competition in Bangalore, her home- As Sunitha grew friendlier with the number of useful skills ranging from"Sunitha works in territory most peo- town. By now her radical views had prostitutes, they began telling her bookbinding to masonry and welding.ple wouldnt dare venture into. And estranged her from her family, so about traffic~ed children confined in They are then placed with privateshes had a major impact." when she was released two months brothels. Right away, Sunitha knew companies or given a job at Prajwala later she decided to move to Hyder- she had to free them. Enterprises, a small-scale unit that rawer of her office desk, abad where she could make a fresh Because of the danger of violence mostly makes and sells stationery and out an iron rod with a start. from traffickers, Brother Jose was dead furniture. d. "This is to protect She soon became involved with the against the idea. But Sunitha refused In its early years, Sunitha had to ys. "If necessary, Ill housing problems of slum dwellers. to play safe. Each rescue was a cloak- sell her jewelJery and even most of When the homes of people living by and-dagger operation, dependent on her household utensils to make ends the citys Musi River were slated to accurate information, perfect timing, meet at Prajwala. She also learned to be bulldozed for a "beautification" and a clean getaway. Sunitha had never chase donations-"I have a PhD in project, she organized protests and attempted anything remotely similar, ~. The word means eternal flame.102 REAOU·S DIGEST rd· OCTOBER 2008 REAOERS OIGEST rd· O(T08£R 1008 103
  3. 3. begging," she says. in improving their shelters for viet married simultaneously Hyderabad businessman Muralid- of trafficking. She agreed, but: and the guests includedharan T. testifies to that. In August before the South Koreans promised to tOP government officials,2001, following heavy rains, Muralid- arrange a two-day stay for her ,. na among them the chief jus-harans offices were flooded and local brothel so that she could stud tice of Andhra Pradesh,substantial equipment damaged in a the local situation closely. Y G.S. Singhvi. Recently,new company hed started. He and his Jus tice Singhvi, now aemployees wondered if the business With the summer vacation Over and sup reme Court judge, con-would survive. T hen Sunitha arrived. schools about to reopen, most of the fessed that he was anasking for donat ions-not for Pra- b lue u n iformed gi rl s at Prajwala ardent fan of Sunitha. "Shejwala, but to help people whose homes Enterprises are busy making note- is unique," he said. "Shehad been washed away. "She was so books. "Since when have yo u been does wonderful work."persuasive," Muralidharan says, "that working here?" I ask one of O Uf astonishment we all found our- "Since 2003," she says. "I like it." Inspector General of Po-selves donating money." Zuleikha* was once a teenager lice S. Umapathi shakes his living with her parents in Hyderabad. head and looks at me rue-The devout Catholic, Brother Jose, "Married" over the te lep hone to a fully. Hes been telling meand the devout Hindu, Sunitha, made "sheikh" supposedly living in Dubai, about a thoughtless policyan unlikely team. "He was the brains, Zuleikha was dumped in a Mumbai that the Andhra policeI the doer," she says. So it was a great brothel and then moved to Delhi. Two had been following-untilb low when Jose suddenly died of harrowing years later, she was rescued Sunitha brought about "aa heart attack in 2005. But Sunitha and came to Asha Niketan. complete change in ourrecovered. In 2006, she married film Trained in book-binding Zuleikha, mindset." Until recently,director Rajesh Touchriver. Her hus- 23, now earns Rs4800 a month, the state police, like copsband, apart from providing much enough for her to be able to move out in the rest of India, mostlyneeded emotional support, also helps of Asha Niketan and rent a room. She arrested the prostitutesher make films that educate the pub- fell in love with a young Hindu in when they raided a brothel.lic on the evils of sex trafficking. 2006, and both families have agreed The n, at a workshop in Prajwala, with a staff of 200, two- to the match. However, Zuleikha has 2005, Sunitha convincedthirds of whom are survivors of pros- yet to tell her boyfriend that she is Umapathi and other offi-titution, has thrived under Sunithas HIV positive-but has p romised cers that the true criminals were the victims to be immediately counselledleadership. It now has an international Sunitha that she will. traffickers, not the women theyd by the NGOs social workers.rep utation and Sunitha is regularly If the marriage is to take place. fo rced into prostitution. "We now Theres been some change in offi-co nsulted, in addition to the Indian Sunitha will make all the a rrange- foc us on arresting traffickers and res- cial attitudes towards traffickers too.authorities, by the United Nations and ments-as she has done for about 400 cuing the victims," Umapathi says. Very often, the police in red light areasthe US government. She has also won others so far. Before giving her con- Thanks to Sunitha opening their are hand in glove with traffickers andseveral awards, which she has used sent to a marriage Sunitha has the eyes, the police are now much more rarely arrest them. But even when theyto strengthen Prajwalas finances. groom thoroughly checked out. She willing to cooperate with her. They do, its very hard to get convictions:Recently, Sunitha received a request also buys each bride a trousseau, act on tip-offs provided by her inform- since witness protection programsfrom an unexpected quarter: the South jewellery and utensils. ers, take a Prajwala representative on dont exist, victims are usually tooKorean government wanted her help Last year, eight couples were rescue mis,sions, and arrange for the scared to testify in court. Moreover,104 REA,DE RS DIGES T OC TOBER zoo, R~ DERS DIGEST rd· OCTO BER zo08 105
  4. 4. prosecutions are desultory, and judges counsel unable to discredit the plain- are often openly contemptuous of tiffs testimony, the trial ended swiftly the victims. with convictions for both defendants. In her quest to bring traffickers to It was the first time ever that sex book, Sunitha has also worked hard traffickers had been convicted in to change the attitudes of public pros- Andhra Pradesh. Whats more, one ecutors and judges. Her strategy was defendant was given 10 years- tested last year when a pregnant 16- the severest punishment for traffick- year-old managed to escape the ing ever handed down in India. And brothel shed been confined in and in another case seven months later, came to Prajwala. 12 more traffickers were put behind "To our astonishment, she wanted bars. to testify against her traffickers," Sunitha says, "so we took her to the The phone rings, and Sunitha picks it police station to lodge a complaint. up. As she listens to the person at the other end, she looks [ -J , more and moreraffickcrs to bopk, Svnitha grim. "That was the head of the govern- has worked hard to ments women and child welfare de- change attitudes. partment," she tells me, hanging up. Luckily, the inspector there had been "Our food parlour in the secretariat trained by me and went out of his way was shut down because of the allega- to help." tion of one of our three girls working Serendipitously, both the public there was entertaining men early in prosecutor and the judge also turned the morning before it opened." out to have attended Sunithas lec- The closure of the popular and tures. "The public prosecutor treated very profitable parlour doesnt just the girl really well," Sunitha says. "He represent a financial blow and the convinced her that she was somebody loss of three jobs. Another girl he and other officials cared about, that has betrayed Sunithas hope and trust. her evidence was vital, that they Sadly, it happens regularly because would ensure her safety. He even even though a woman may have been arranged for a mock trial in which she forced into prostitution, the longer was taken through the court process she remains in the brothel the more and warned about how aggressive the used she becomes to that life and defence lawyer would be." the more difficult it is for her to stay On her part, the judge kept the trial away from it. Sunitha blames it also moving briskly. And with the defence on societys apathy towards the 106 REAOERS OIGEST OCTOBE R 008
  5. 5. ---- -- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - victims. Indeed, nowhere in the world failure may not be entirely so. One have rehabilitation programmes for woman who went back to prostitution prostitutes met with great success, is today also an informer for Prajwala. and at Prajwala, despite all the coun- selling and training, about one- A pdllce constable enters Sunithas third of the victims return to the sex roo d stands respectfully before trade. her. He come to serve a summons Although each relapse hurts o a r..e:scued trafficking victim. She Sunitha-and occasionally even leads has to gi evidence in the trial of five her to wonder if shes doing the people Who trafficked her. right thing-her conviction in her mis"" The girl igns the receipt for the sion basically remains as strong as summons and turns around to leave. ever. "I dont believe in the numbers "Youll testify?" Sunitha asks her. game," she says. To her each person "Yes, Madam." rescued is unique, each victim must "Youre sure?" be given every opportunity to start "Yes, Madam." afresh, each attempt to rehabilitate "You wont get scared?" is worthwhile. "No, Madam ... No. After all, youre And, sometimes, what seems a with me."